Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Fizzle and Fuzzy Logic

Crossposted from Pragoti .

A rather unseemly debate is underway publicly over claims made by a senior member, K.Santhanam of the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) that the results of the thermonuclear test in 1998 were a "fizzle". K.Santhanam's claims suggest that the estimated TNT output of 43 KT, made by the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre, which monitored the blasts (alongwith the DRDO) and whose findings were asserted by then Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chairman R. Chidambaram, was an overestimation. K.Santhanam's claims have come 11 years since the blasts and the reason attributed for the delay is that being a public servant, it was not possible for him to com out in the open with the negation of the official results.
The 1998 nuclear blasts during the BJP led NDA regime featured a series of tests - two on a high and low yield fission bombs and one "thermonuclear" fission-fusion bomb - the hydrogen bomb. The thermonuclear test was the showpiece of the nuclear blasts, which immediately preceded a retaliatory sequence of tests by neighbouring Pakistan (which were suggested to have low TNT yields themselves).
Right after the tests, the claims of high yield made by the AEC and the Indian defence establishment were questioned by independent sources including seismologists, nuclear physicists and weapon experts. As this article by Praful Bidwai suggests, the claims were suspect right after they were made and independent sources affirmed that the yield was overestimated based on seismological data.
K.Santhanam's article co-written with former bureaucrat Ashok Parthasarathy in The Hindu, made even more startling revelations - suggesting that the decision to uphold the yield estimates of BARC after the tests was made by a "voice-vote". The article also produced a point-by-point rebuttal of R.Chidambaram's assertions that the yield estimates were accurate and that the thermonuclear test was a success.
The Frontline's science correspondent R.Ramachandran's article in The Hindu then went to explicate the veracity of the BARC and former AEC Chairman's claims. The important suggestion in this article was that the on-site radioactive test following the nuclear blasts at the test-site revealed the presence of radioisotopes, which was most probably the products of high-energy neutrons produced by fusion reactions and hence the veracity of the claim.
Technical evaluation of the claims and counter-claims aside - what is relevant is the rationale for the statements made by K.Santhanam and other detractors of the thermonuclear test (including other nuclear scientists and ex-mandarins, Homi Sethna, PK Iyengar and others). The detractors suggest that the failure of the thermonuclear test necessitated a further round of testing and that this was needed because a fusion bomb was to be the core of a credible minimum deterrent (CMD), fitting in with India's nuclear doctrine. Rebuttals of this suggestion immediately followed by defense analyst K.Subrahmanyam (in the Indian Express for e.g.) who argued that there was no need for a thermonuclear component in the CMD and that fission bombs would do the needful .
In essence what flows from the arguments of both the detractors of the 1998 thermonuclear test- many of whom opposed the Indo-Nuclear Deal from a standpoint that the deal curtailed the weaponisation programme and the proponents of the success theory (or even so called neutral observers who oppose the need for a further test) is a common understanding of the need for a nuclear weapon oriented defence doctrine. That much is clear.
The former argue for a even "greater" deterrent - witness the claims made by K.Santhanam that the absence of a thermonuclear bomb creates a gap between India and its "great power rival" - China; thereby bringing in the "China bogey" into the nuclear "game" - something that was ludicrously tangled as a reason for the 1998 tests by then defence minister George Fernandes. In essence, the logic behind the claims made by K.Santhanam is that the minimum in the CMD is not enough and only the presence of a thermonuclear bomb would help attain that status and this is justified when the gap between India and China in their respective "nuclear arsenals" are considered.
Can there be an even more Strangelovian argument? First of all, the nuclear doctrine in China was never focussed toward India, but toward the US and the USSR - a legacy of the Cold War and the Sino-Soviet split. That the difference in the arsenals is thrust as an argument to justify a stronger deterrent makes that argument only even more self-serving is clear - as such a strategy would entail that the Indian defensive deterrent is directed at China's capabilities and therefore that would mean that China could now claim that its arsenal is necessitated due to India's doctrine. What can be more ridiculous than this?
It however needs to be mentioned that the rejection of a greater deterrent argument does not mean that there should be a retention of the status quo vis-a-vis the nuclear arsenals of India and China; but that normatively there needs to be a stronger impulse toward a nuclear disarmament regime that targets vertical proliferation among the Nuclear Five and a binding commitment among them to disarm.
Which takes us to the argument about India's nuclear doctrine itself. The very opaque nature of the Indian nuclear lobby's functioning (or in essence the defence establishment's) suggests that the presence of destructive weapons of the nuclear variety in the subcontinent is latent with terrible danger. The argument for a "minimal deterrent" is poor because the presence of nuclear weapons has never deterred a conflict (Kargil for e.g.) or war like confrontation leading to the brink of danger. The infighting among the sections of the nuclear lobby coupled with the strategic community's high stakes "great power game", creates a situation where neighbouring countries would only want to react in a similar Tandava nritya to establish nuclear parity. Indeed, the "nuclear doctrine" as established now is an untenable one for the security and peace of the subcontinent.
What would be a more credible, moral and ethical imperative would be the complete disarmament in both India and Pakistan and there is no better time for the same than the present. There is a commonality of interests in both these states (and definitely among the societies) to eradicate extremism. That the nuclear defense doctrine in India is predicated on the assumption that there could be a extremist takeover of the nuclear establishment in Pakistan suggests that the eradication of extremism is of the highest priority. If this commonality of interests could also translate into an understanding on eradicating the nuclear threat perceptions through disarmament, that would mark a logical culmination - also a very instrumental one because it will cut down the expenditure burden of these third world developing countries.
But would the "realism" driven strategic establishments in both these countries even work toward such a culmination? That would mean that these establishment would have to rethink the entire paradigm of their defense/IR strategies. It would mean that these establishments would have to think beyond a paradigm that suggests an intrinsically given clash of power interests, rather than the true fact that the rivalry is an dependent variable wrought through the interests of ideologically driven sections in both the respective nations.
To explain this further- consider that in 1998, the BJP government ordered nuclear testing, immediately after it came to power. The rationale offered, by then defence minister George Fernandes was that the test were necessitated because of hostile neighbours, both of whom had committed aggression against India (in a leaked out letter to the US president Bill Clinton). What is worth noting is that the BJP included the nuclear option in its election manifesto not because of these "defensive" reasons, but because the nuclear option was always in its ideological firmament - as early as the early 1950s, the BJP's precursor, the Jan Sangh had demanded the development of nuclear weapons!.
Similarly, Pokharan-1, which featured the first successful nuclear weapon testing by India, was done during the Indira Gandhi regime, who justified the same as necessitated against China; coming only a decade after the border war between the nations. As a domino effect, Pakistan immediately embarked upon nuclear weaponisation and proliferation processes through largely covert means (the dreaded AQ Khan network);these were themselves facilitated by a pliant imperial regime run by Ronald Reagan as is depicted by the excellent book, "Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the global nuclear weapons conspiracy".
In other words, far from being just a result of power games intrinsic to the anarchic international order, the nuclear weaponisation (and proliferation) syndrome was effected due to ideological impetuses from ruling establishments, buttressed by an ineffectual and incompetent non-proliferation regime.
What this article therefore calls for, is a doing away with a few things - the power based IR strategic thinking and therefore the nuclear defense doctrine and therefore nuclear weapons itself. That, as the cliche goes, makes the world far better.

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