Pokharan Again

20 Sep, 1997    ·   16

P. R. Chari discusses the various questions that have risen after Dr. Raja Ramanna, former Chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission, disclosed that: "The Pokharan test was a bomb. I can tell you now".

Speaking to an audience in Pune Dr. Raja Ramanna, former Chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission, and recently nominated member to India 's Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament), made a sensational disclosure: "The Pokharan test was a bomb. I can tell you now". That statement has inspired much media hype, with the Indian Express (11/10/97) declaring that Dr. Ramanna has "brought the country's nuclear capability out of the closet" and this has "let the nuclear genie out".



Pokharan, 1974: A Bomb or Device?



Dr. Ramanna's views were contradicted by his predecessor-in-office Dr. Homi Sethna, who, incidentally, was Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission when the Pokharan explosion was planned and conducted. In his words: "Dr. Ramanna is entitled to his views. In my opinion it was not a bomb", but "a nuclear device for peaceful purposes". A bomb, apparently needs to have a particular shape and has to be portable, which the Pokharan device was not. In fact, "The device at Pokharan was just a ball" (Asian Age 12/10/97). Commenting on the delivery systems, Dr. Sethna was clear that the aircraft available to India in 1974 could not have carried the device. He added, however, that: "Maybe the freight carrier aircraft which opens at the rear [AN-12?] could have been used for the purpose, but the aircraft would have been blown up with the explosion".



The scientific community has come out with contradictory views that either agree with or question Dr. Ramanna. Supporters have urged that "an explosion is an explosion", while detractors argue that "the term bomb involves compactification (miniaturisation)" to enable being carried by an aircraft or a missile. India 's major strategic thinkers (K. Subrahmanyam/ Jasjit Singh) have guardedly agreed that the difference between a PNE and weapon's test lies only in its intent and purpose. That confuses the argument by stressing intention over technology, and equates the capability to explode a nuclear device with the possession of a nuclear weapon.



A distinction between a nuclear device and weapon, however can be made, and is all-important. A nuclear device is a nuclear explosive, simpliciter. But a nuclear weapon possesses the essential pre-requisite of being deliverable upon identified targets. This distinction embodies the difference between a civil and military explosive nuclear capability. Shading over this difference may be politically expedient, but it would be technologically illiterate and misleading.



What is required to convert the Pokharan device into a nuclear weapon is a series of nuclear tests. This would allow the miniaturization of the device and its conversion into a weapon that could equip India 's present generation of nuclear-delivery-capable aircraft like Jaguars, Mig-27's and/or Mirage-2000's. In my view, none of these aircraft and, for that matter, the F-16's with Pakistan , are configured for this purpose. Else, the aircraft used could only be employed on one-way missions like the "freight carrier aircraft" mentioned by Dr. Sethna. The aircraft in question would, more specifically, need modification to their airframes and weapons delivery software and systems. Prudence would suggest that these aircraft would have to be test flown with these nuclear weapons to ensure their compatibility and efficacy as a composite weapon system. The need for nuclear testing becomes much more imperative if the nuclear warhead is intended to equip a missile. This requires both the warhead and the missile to be mated, which requires, in turn, that they be independently tested. The short point needs to be stressed here that a nuclear test series is unavoidably necessary to convert the Pokharan nuclear device into a nuclear weapon.



What's eating Dr. Ramanna?



The crucial question does arise: why should Dr. Ramanna choose to make this sensational disclosure some 23 years after the event? He was, indubitably, part of the Indian Establishment that kept insisting at that time, and for years thereafter, that the Pokharan test was only a peaceful nuclear explosion. This scientific explanation was maintained despite considerable scepticism being expressed over the years in all parts of the world. The Indian strategic community concurred in this posture. Now, their suggestion that Pokharan was indeed, an event with military connotations represents a change of heart/mind that is intriguing.



Four explanations are possible to explain this in an ascending order of credibility:



First, that Dr. Ramanna's was a political statement. Note, it was made in Pune. This is BJP- Country. Was it made to secure political mileage with the likely-to-come-into-power-in-next-elections party?



Second, that Dr. Ramanna's statement is of a piece with similar past assertions. Recollect that he had affirmed that India's' present nuclear capability was sufficient to establish a nuclear deterrent, and that no more nuclear tests were needed, even if the Prithvi of Agni were to be equipped with nuclear warheads (The Hindu, 28/10/96). It would seem that he favours India declaring itself a nuclear weapons power, despite the knowledge that this would have great political and military economic implications.



Third, he believes that such statements supported by the bomb protagonists in India 's strategic community will generate sufficient pressure upon the weak, minority Gujral government to weaponize India 's "open" nuclear option. It would thereby derive popular support and prolong its life expectancy. The fallacy in this logic is that a weak minority government is equally susceptible to external pressure not to weaponize India 's nuclear option.



Fourth, a conspiratorial theory could be urged that the Ramanna statement is expressly designed to derail the Indo-US strategic dialogue that is being planned beginning with Pickering 's visit to India . That dialogue would obviously concern itself with, among other knotty issues, the nuclear question. Hence pre-emptive measures are required, including statements of this genre, to queer the pitch not unlike the border firings by Pakistan 's Army to derail the proposed Indo-Pak talks on normalizing relations between the two countries.



Which one or combination of these motives is driving efforts to highlight India 's nuclear prowess? Should these extraneous considerations influence the nuclear debate in India ? Above all, is India 's "open" nuclear option a non-negotiable question, like Kashmir ? What exactly has the openness of India 's nuclear option procured in political, economic, technological or strategic terms?



Any serious debate on the nuclear issue must address these hard questions. May be that is what Dr. Ramanna truly desires!