Nuclear Testing in South Asia

08 Jun, 1998    ·   115

Mallika Joseph & Jolie Wood the first meeting which focussed on the motivations behind the tests and the technical details

The discussion followed two themes: the motivations for the tests by India , and the technical parameters of the tests. Mr. P. R. Chari, co-director of IPCS, presented a short paper outlining the first theme, motivations. Dr. G. Balachandran presented an overview of the technical issues.



Mr. Chari commenced by spelling out the motivations, as informed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Parliament on 27th May1998 and also from the statement issued by PM’s Principal Secretary, Brijesh Mishra on 12th May. The following motivations as detailed by the Government.



·                     "the nuclear environment in India ’s environment"- Brijesh Mishra stated this paramount reason prompted the Government to take the nuclear decision. The tests have reassured the people that their national security interests have been protected and will be further promoted.


·                     "the Government was faced with a difficult decision. The touchstone that has guided us in making the correct choice clear was national security."- The PM in Parliament on May 27, 1998.


·                     "gradual deterioration of our security environment as a result of nuclear and missile proliferation"- The PM added that the induction of sophisticated delivery systems in the neighbourhood was also a security concern.


·                     "At the global level, we see no evidence on the part of the nuclear weapon states to take decisive and irreversible steps in moving towards a nuclear - weapon - free - world."- The PM pointed out that the indefinite extension of the NPT only proved this point.


These were the motivations stated by the Government. But were these the real motivations? Mr. Chari listed the other probable motivations that could have led to the nuclear tests.



·                     The security rational advanced by the BJP Government was vastly exaggerated. The irrepressible Defence Minister’s constant iteration that China , apart from Pakistan , comprised the security threat to India has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


·                     It is very likely that pressures from the scientists in the Atomic Energy Commission/ Defence Research and Development Organisation were operating.


·                     According to Art. XIV (2) of the CTBT India might have faced sanctions on the attempt "to accelerate the ratification process." Therefore, Indian policy makers believed that the window of opportunity to go nuclear was closing and India would have been sanctioned after September 1999 for not signing the CTBT. Thus, India had to test now or never.


·                     If the tests were conducted now there was adequate time for the dust to settle before Clinton ’s scheduled visit to the subcontinent!


·                     The testing of the Ghauri by Pakistan provided a perfect excuse for the India BJP Government to justify their case.


·                     It is very likely also that motivations of prestige were operating at the level of domestic politics.


There seemed to be a general consensus in the discussion that the tests were more laboratory-driven rather than arising from security concerns. The reasons were two. Firstly, the security threat argument holds no water as a review of the post-test security scenario depicts a crisis situation far more acute than the original situation which apparently prompted the nuclear tests. Thus, the tests had less to do with the immediate security environment than with the long-term objective of bringing stability to South Asia . The second reason was that the scientific expertise gained by the scientists after Pokharan-I was getting dated and their protégés needed to prove themselves. What substantiated this argument were the many statements issued by the scientists including Dr. Abdul Kalam and Dr. Chidambaram. These articulations by scientists and engineers rather than policy makers, as is the norm all over the world, does raise more than a few eyebrows.



That the "window of opportunity was closing" with the CTBT ratification process in Sept, 1999 was not accepted. The entry-into-force clause requires the listed forty four countries ratifying the treaty by September 1999. Otherwise the UN Secretary-General must convene a conference to see how the treaty can be progressed. There are no sanctions mandated at this point, contrary to popular perceptions. Hence the argument that BJP Government was trying to test before this window of opportunity closed is not valid. One other motivation was pointed out by one of the discussants to be the impact of nuclear ambiguity on the morale of the armed forces. The discussant went ahead to debunk such a claim.



Discussion on Sino-Indian relations after the nuclear tests, with particular reference to the Indian Prime Minister’s letter to the US President naming China as the threat and reason for going nuclear, was deferred to another total session to be held in future.



G. Balachandran spelt out the technical parameters of the tests. He noted that technical information released was very restricted. Of the five tests, the thermonuclear explosion has created doubts among experts worldwide, some of whom believe that it was actually a boosted fission device. Balachandran said the general conclusion was that it was a thermonuclear explosion, since the yields cited were for two stages (the first a fission explosion of 12 kt and the second a thermonuclear explosion of 31 kt, for a total yield of 43 kt), and a boosted fission explosion has no second stage.



Another issue that remains uncertain is whether the yields reported refer to designed yields or actual yields. Generally, the actual yield is closer to the designed yield for a fission explosion (margin of error about five percent) than for a thermonuclear explosion (margin of error about ten to fifteen percent, as it is more difficult to predict two stages than one). Balachandran noted that the yields cited for the Indian tests were much higher than those cited for the Pakistani tests. However, Pakistan has not made public whether their figures refer to designed or actual yields.



Another major issue was weaponisation. Firstly, how to define weaponisation is complex. A weapon does not have to be fully assembled; in some cases it can be put together very quickly. He described the different components of a weapon—nuclear and non-nuclear—and different features of each, including, the chemical explosive, the fusing mechanism, and the nuclear core. The overall design of the weapon is obviously important. The consistency of the chemical explosive is a crucial element. Balachandran believed that India has all the necessary elements for weaponisation.



A discussion on the technical issues followed. The first issue was the thermonuclear explosion. One participant, a prominent scientist, challenged the assertion that boosted fission devices have no second stage. Israel and the United States are the only countries known to have manufactured a low-yield fusion device. He argued that the so-called thermonuclear device was actually a fission-fusion-fission device. If the actual yield was around 45 kt, then Israeli know-how was probably used. However, he said, it is hard to believe that India could obtain such a low yield in its first attempt.



He also questioned the assertion that, with only five field tests, Indian scientists could now move to sub-critical tests. He maintained that further field tests would be necessary to maximize the yield-to-weight ratio, which cannot be done in the laboratory. Another participant cited an official statement indicating that the field tests completed thus far have provided scientists with the critical data needed to begin conducting subcritical tests. It was also suggested that this was a political statement intended to provide justification for India signing the CTBT.



Another question raised was why the tests were done simultaneously. Was there any technical advantage, and could the data be separately analyzed? The scientist thought there was no problem in separating and analyzing the data from different explosions. The question was then raised, why were two devices tested in the same shaft? There was no satisfactory answer. Other questions included, why conduct two additional tests of lower yields two days later? Why test a fusion bomb of only a few kilotons? The answer to the latter question was that fusion bombs have a higher yield-to-weight ratio. The scientist added that a fusion bomb is a "cleaner" weapon than a fission bomb, yielding more radioactivity with less explosive power (thus preserving property while killing people).



The issue of weaponisation was then raised. The official stand, said one participant, is that India has been capable of weaponising nuclear bombs since 1990. The command-and-control system is said to be in place. The engineer maintained that weaponisation had been achieved. The scientist challenged this evaluation, citing Chidambaram's statement that the 45-kiloton device weighed about one thousand pounds; the weight must be reduced to weaponise this device. Reducing the weight and maintaining the yield requires further field tests. In the US , two different laboratories, Sandia Laboratories in New Mexico and Livermore Laboratories in California , certify the tests completed and guarantee the weapons' serviceability. Without such a system India and Pakistan cannot be confident of their weaponisation programs. A Pentagon spokesman was cited as saying that it would take India and Pakistan a year or two to weaponise. Another participant noted that the gap between India and China in this endeavor was at least five years.