By Ninan Koshy
The controversy ignited by a leading scientist who participated in India’s nuclear tests in 1998 has shaken political and scientific circles in India.
By describing the tests as a “fizzle”, K Santhanam has not only challenged the official claims about the tests but also raised critical questions about India’s nuclear doctrine, its voluntary moratorium on tests, its adherence to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)  and the much-trumpeted civilian nuclear deal with the United States.
Santhanam said on August 26 that “based on the seismic measurements and also the opinion from experts there was a much lower yield in the thermonuclear device test” conducted at Pokhran in May 1998. In nuclear parlance, a test is described as a fizzle when it fails to meet the desired yield. Affirming that India would need more tests, Santhanam cautioned against India being pressurized into signing the CTBT.
Santhanam’s statement has divided the scientific community and made the political establishment nervous. But it’s not an entirely new development; the division in the scientific community in India and abroad on the results of the 1998 tests started within a week after they were conducted.
The official claim was that the thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb had achieved a yield of 43 kilotons and that “it had been purposely kept at this relatively low yield to prevent damage to neighboring villages and radiation venting”. At the first press conference after the tests, the leading scientists of the team, including R Chidambaram, head of the Atomic Energy Agency (AEA) and APJ Abdul Kalam, director general of the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), asserted that weaponization was complete.
One of those present at that press meet was K Santhanam, then a senior official of the DRDO who had played a leading role in coordinating the tests.
These claims were challenged both in India and abroad. In India, though the scientific community generally took the official line, serious doubts were expressed by some leading scientists, including PK Iyengar, former director of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Those who followed the technical debate in the international nuclear weapons community at that time will recall that foreign analysts had challenged India’s claims and agreed, based on seismographic studies, that the yield of the thermonuclear device was in the range of 12 to 25 kt.
Some suggested that Shakti I was a “boosted fission” weapon, not a thermonuclear device. According to the website of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), “Based on seismic data, the US government and independent experts estimated the yield of so-called thermonuclear test in the range of 12-25 kilotons, as opposed to the 43 kt claimed by India. The lower yield raised skepticism about India’s claim to have detonated a thermonuclear device.”
In November 1998, Nucleonics Week, the international nuclear industry’s trade journal, reported that scientists at the Z division of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California – an industry watchdog responsible for making estimates of progress in foreign nuclear weapons programs based on classified data – had concluded that the second stage of a two-stage Indian hydrogen bomb device failed to ignite as planned.
Chidambaram and others repeated their claims and even expanded them. During a two-hour briefing for the Indian Science Writers’ Association in February 1999, Chidambaram made a series of claims about the “perfect” character of India’s tests and the country’s “high technological threshold”. He said that the Indian scientists had achieved a “perfect three”, with the tests: mastering the optimum emplacement design for the nuclear device; getting specific yield calculations and ensuring zero radioactive contamination.
It is this claim of perfection that is under serious challenge and generally believed to be dubious, if not hollow. Prominent scientists such as A Gopalkrishnan, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and P K Iyengar are in agreement with the criticism of Santhanam and point out that the single thermonuclear device India tested in 1998 did not function at all as per design and did not produce anything near the expected design yield.
There was something wrong with the design or prediction method, they argue, and therefore a re-examination of these aspects to decide whether further tests are necessary to obtain a “perfect” design approach is called for.
For Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the controversy should have ended with what he believed to be the final verdict given by former president APJ Abdul Kalam. Kalam refuted the claims of Santhanam, who was his junior in the DRDO at the time of the tests.
The credentials of Kalam, then considered the highest authority on the subject, are questioned by many scientists, including Homi Sethna, another former chairman of the AEC, who was the guiding force behind India’s first nuclear test in 1974.
The most profound statement made by Kalam, who later became president of India, immediately after the tests was not scientific – but political. He said how a nuclear-armed India “will be free of foreign invasions which have constantly remolded the ancient Hindu civilization”. Those who believe that this was the statement – more than the bomb itself – that endeared Kalam to the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ruling at that time, may have a valid point. Sethna has suggested that Kalam’s statement refuting Santhanam was that of a politician.
The fact that the controversy disturbed the political establishment came through in comments made by India’s National Security Adviser M K Narayanan in an interview to a national daily. While putting on a brave face, Narayanan dismissed Santhanam as a “bit of a maverick” instead of facing the many issues raised by the statement.
He said Western analysts had questioned the Pokhran II tests because “they don’t want to recognize that we are a nuclear weapon power, particularly that we are capable of a fusion device”. Narayanan should know. He knows how much time and energy had to be spent to get India a certificate from president George W Bush recognizing it as a de facto nuclear weapon state of good conduct.
Yet another claim made by Chidambaram and others at the time of the tests was that India could develop simulation technology. Their statement on May 16 referred to this and other sub-critical experiments. It was apparently the confidence in developing simulation technology that also made them claim that no further tests were necessary. This claim also was disputed at that time. France, in spite of almost 200 tests in the Pacific, could not develop simulation technology.
To ensure support for the CTBT, the US made secret arrangements with France to provide it technical assistance as well as cooperation with US nuclear weapon laboratories to enhance computer simulation to maintain the reliability of nuclear weapons. There have been reports that soon after the tests, India approached the US for similar assistance. This was a non-starter in Washington as providing such assistance to a non-nuclear weapon state would be a violation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Scientists who now say that the 1998 tests failed are clearly stating that the establishment of a validated computer simulation model cannot be done without more weapons tests.
The nuclear tests were carried out in a doctrinal vacuum. There was neither a doctrine that guided the tests nor a consensus after the tests as to what India’s nuclear doctrine should be. On August 4, 1998, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee stated in parliament, “We have now declared our nuclear doctrine.” He then said that India’s nuclear doctrine would be “no first use based on minimum deterrence”.
One year later, on the eve of elections to parliament, the government released the Draft Nuclear Doctrine proposed by the newly formed National Security Advisory Board. Nothing much was heard of this precious document for a long time, though it was known later that it was disowned by foreign minister Jaswant Singh as “unofficial” in his negotiations with Strobe Talbott, former US deputy secretary of state.
After virtual silence on the nuclear doctrine for a long time, a government press release on January 4, 2003, “shared with the public” the Cabinet Committee on Security’s review of the operationalization of India’s nuclear doctrine.
It spoke of “building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent”, “a position of no first use” and “a second-strike capability that will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage in the event of a nuclear attack”. The doctrine says, “The fundamental purpose of Indian nuclear weapons is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons by any state or entity against India and its forces anywhere.” (Emphasis added).
What will be the minimum deterrent required for credible second-strike capability and for punitive retaliation against any state or entity which could include the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization?
More importantly, the doctrine speaks about attacks “against India and its forces anywhere”. Those who advocate more nuclear tests see a mismatch between the doctrine and weaponization. The question of whether India needs an array of thermonuclear weapons for deterrence also is relevant. So far, not even a limited discussion on requirements for deterrence has been attempted in the public domain.
Santhanam has made it clear that the purpose of his statement was to prevent the Indian government from being railroaded into signing the CTBT as the Indian government will be under increasing pressure from the Barrack Obama administration. Until the time of the nuclear tests India had opposed the CTBT.
In the statement on India’s nuclear policy presented to parliament on May 27, 1998, it was said that the government had announced India’s desire to observe a voluntary moratorium and refrain from conducting underground nuclear explosions.
It also signalled a willingness to “move towards a de jure finalization of the declaration” thus meeting the basic obligations of the CTBT. Within hours of the test, Brajesh Mishra, the prime minister’s principal secretary, said that India was ready to adhere to certain provisions in the CTBT. Brajesh added, “This cannot be done in a vacuum.”
What India wanted from the US were concessions, especially in the matter of high technology and lifting of sanctions. Talbott wrote later in his book Engaging India, “India was prepared to find a modus vivendi with the US and with the global nuclear order through participation in a number of arms control agreements. India reiterated its ‘de facto adherence to the spirit of the CTBT’. In exchange of lifting of sanctions, India might take the next steps, de jure formalization of our position and acceptance of the letter of the treaty.”
India had come almost to the point of signing the CTBT when the US Senate refused to ratify it. India had to wait until the George W Bush administration left office to make a deal with the US. There is more than implicit acceptance of the CTBT by India in the nuclear deal. The voluntary moratorium of India has been turned into a virtual ban on future tests and thus a condition of the civilian nuclear agreement with the US.
The Obama administration is keen to get the CTBT ratified by the senate. Once it is done, there will be much pressure, not only from the US but also from member states of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, on India to sign the treaty.
Although India’s official position is that it can conduct tests, in practice it is not allowed to do so. If India conducts tests, the nuclear agreement will be terminated by the US; and if it does so after the deal is implemented, there will be enormous loss for India. Therefore, those who ask for more tests argue this is the best time to do it.
The debate now is between those who make a case for further tests to have a “credible nuclear deterrent” and an officialdom hamstrung by the nuclear deal with the US. The voice of those who are gravely concerned about the nuclear arms race in the volatile sub-continent is yet to be heard.
1. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) bans all nuclear explosions in all environments, for military or civilian purposes. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on September 10, 1996, but it has not yet entered into force.
Ninan Koshy, a political commentator based in Trivandrum, Kerala, India, and formerly Visiting Fellow, Harvard Law School, is the author of “War on Terror: Re-ordering the World and Under the Empire: India’s New Foreign Policy.”