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Why We Need More N-tests

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With evidence emerging of Pakistan modifying missiles and working overtime on nuclear weapons, India must reserve its right to test new nukes

With evidence emerging of Pakistan modifying missiles and working overtime on nuclear weapons, India must reserve its right to test new nukes

I have become death, the destroyer of worlds

This immortal line from the Bhagwata Gita has an eerie contemporary relevance. R Santhanam, a senior physicist involved in the Pokhran II blasts, has joined western critics in doubting India’s hydrogen bomb tested in Rajasthan in May 1998.

The hydrogen bomb is no ordinary bomb, and his is no everyday doubt. For a start, let us accept this: a nuclear scientist intimately involved with the tests saying that it failed to give the desired yield, and the establishment reacting with tetchy repudiations, only exposes the myth of the Argumentative Indian. The myth, that is, of a country comfortable discussing the most contentious of public matters openly and freely towards the cause of truth, above all.

It’s a matter every citizen should be interested in. The hydrogen bomb, sometimes referred to as a ‘thermonuclear device’, is a deadly weapon that uses regular atomic-bomb technology, but attains its explosive power through the fusion of light atomic nuclei of hydrogen in an uncontrolled reaction that releases enormous amounts of energy. Such a bomb is about a thousand times as powerful as a plain atomic bomb, which uses nuclear fission—the splitting of atoms—to create its big bang, and is itself about a million times more powerful than a comparably sized bomb that uses conventional explosives such as TNT.

In a strange way, the hydrogen bomb unites three religions. It is the Qayamat in Islamic thought, the Prahlay in Hinduism and Armageddon in Christianity—all rolled neatly into a package of pyrotechnics that promises nothing less than the finality of doom.

India is a multicultural country. It is also a country that needs more tests. After all, the US has done a mindboggling 1,500 nuclear weapon tests, not counting secret ones. The Soviet Union undertook 700 plus. France did over 200, ruining the pristine Polynesian islands in the process. Even the not-so-Great Britain did some 45, half of them in Australia. China, ever the pacifist, has done an equal number. And when Pakistan did its tit-for-tat tests in Chagai in 1998, it briefly abandoned its parity politics to give us a grand show of oneupmanship: it did six to India’s five.

There are now fresh signs that Pakistan is busy enhancing both the quality and quantity of its nuclear weapons. In this light, India cannot shrink its own deterrence. There is a lesson here. Despite the awesome processing power of supercomputers that perform amazing simulations, you cannot have accurate data for nuclear weapons without actually testing them. India, tellingly, has not had the guts to do an atmosphere test. All our tests were underground. In other words, we will just be betting that our bomb works just as well overground as underground. Santhanam, therefore, may have a point, whether or not Pokhran II was a success (the seismic readings in 1998 left US analysts unimpressed in any case).

By forgoing more tests, India displays one of two traits. India is either a genius in science (untrue if you go by the Chandrayaan going defunct), or we are strategically foolish (more likely). By not testing more weapons, we give up strategic space. Testing is needed to miniaturise weapons. With India’s new nuclear submarine already undergoing tests, India may not have the capability to safely miniaturise a hydrogen bomb and tip missiles with it. From a global perspective, this can be seen as a dead giveaway of Pokhran II’s failure. We simply do not have any thermonuclear devices atop missiles.

Weaponisation has not been done. So what was the whole idea? On this, the Government has nothing to say.

Nuclear deterrents must hold global credibility for them to be effective in staving off aggression. With India surrounded by nuclear powers, former President APJ Abdul Kalam’s bland assertion of the tests’ success are just not good enough to deter aggressors. Deterrence comes from deployed capability and a strategic culture that convinces the other party that India can and will use the bomb. On both counts, India looks weak.

Worse, the Obama Administration is full of non-proliferation zealots who are pushing for India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This would be a mistake. It will rule out India’s option of testing a nuclear device. Can computer simulations fill in? The US employs them, but it has lots of past data for which India’s five firecracker experiments are a poor match.

The Government spends more than Rs 1,000 crore every year on its secretive nuclear programme. The country has the right to know if it is getting the bang for its buck.