India reels under explosive nuclear charge
By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI - In an explosive revelation that may well have unsavory foreign
policy repercussions, a senior official of India's premier defense organization
- the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) - who played a
pivotal role in orchestrating India's nuclear program during the Pokhran
nuclear tests in 1998, has declared that the tests that year were a dud and not
nearly as successful as projected to the world.
The declaration by K Santhanam - remarkable as it comes from a top nuclear
scientist directly associated with India's nuclear program - has stirred a
hornet's nest in New Delhi.
The scientific community and political parties - primarily the ruling United
Progressive Alliance (UPA) and its principal right-wing opposition Bharatiya
Janata Party under whose stewardship the
tests were conducted - are scrambling to offer explanations to counter
Home Minister P Chidambaram said he was "puzzled" by the scientist's remark and
acerbically added, "If you are not, then you are a genius."
Santhanam's comments were also contested by Brajesh Mishra, national security
advisor in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government (1998-2004) who said R
Chidambaram, then chairman of the Department of Atomic Energy, had reported to
him on May 13, 1998, that all parameters had been met in the five tests carried
out and there was no need to undertake a sixth one.
Chidambaram has maintained that the Bhabha Atomic Research Center had done
numerous measurements on site during the Pokhran-II experiments, analyzed
global seismic data and the radioactivity in samples recovered post-shot from
near the emplacement points of the nuclear devices to conclude that the tests
were indeed a success. Even erstwhile president A P J Abdul Kalam, who as
director-general of the DRDO spearheaded the nuclear tests in 1998, said the
tests were "successful".
India conducted five nuclear tests on May 11 and 13, 1998, at the Pokhran range
in the western state of Rajasthan. These included a 45-kiloton (kt)
thermonuclear device, also called a hydrogen bomb. Other tests on May 11
included a 15-kt fission device and a 0.2-kt sub-kiloton device. The two
simultaneous nuclear tests on May 13 were also in the sub-kiloton range - 0.5
and 0.3 kt.
According to Santhanam, the yield of thermonuclear explosions was below par and
hence not sufficient to meet India's strategic requirements. The scientist's
contention is that since India still needs to carry out more tests to fine-tune
its nuclear program, it should not rush to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban
Many Western seismic experts, too, had challenged India's claim of a 60-kiloton
(kt) yield on May 11 and 700 tons on May 13, 1998. They approximated that the
output was about 10-15 kt on the first day and about 100 tons later. US
intelligence was of the view that India's claim of testing a "thermonuclear
device" actually amounted to no more than a hydrogen bomb.
The latest revelations have hit like a whiplash at both the Vajpayee-led
government which conducted the tests and Manmohan Singh's current
administration. The Vajpayee government - which had steamrolled world opinion
to go ahead with the nuclear tests within a few months of coming to power that
year - was keen to impress the world with India's newfound nuclear prowess.
The "dud tests" theory has also complicated things for Singh, and might even
jeopardize his carefully choreographed civilian nuclear deal signed with the
United States last year, which catapulted India into mainstream international
nuclear commerce, that too without signing the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
Santhanam's outburst implies that India requires additional nuclear testing for
its program to be perfected and to gain credibility. This will obviously be
anathema to America as the India-US nuclear agreement comes with a clear caveat
- that another nuclear test would lead to its abrogation.
Foreign policy experts point out that the nuclear deal is premised on a waiver
to the US's Atomic Energy Act which bars nuclear trade between the US and
countries that are not signatories to the NPT. This waiver covers only Indian
nuclear tests until May 13, 1998. Any fresh tests would bring the ban on
nuclear trade into immediate force.
The exact yield of the thermonuclear explosion is vital to gauge a country's
defense preparedness. This was evident during the heated debate in the wake of
the India-US nuclear deal, when many top scientists argued that the
disincentives the nuclear deal imposed on testing won't be relevant to India as
no further tests were required for its nuclear program.
Santhanam's assertion might well mess up things for Manmohan on the CTBT front
too. The treaty has gathered immense salience under US President Barack Obama
who, unlike his predecessor George W Bush, is keen to push the treaty through
the senate. If it comes through, India will again face the same dilemma it did
before the Pokhran tests - to test or not.
Once the CTBT is ratified in the US Congress, probably within a few months,
every other country will toe the line. India, which maintains that it will not
come on board, will then seem recalcitrant if it goes against the tide of world
But more than anything else, what this development might do is seriously
undermine India's much-vaunted claim of possessing a world-class nuclear
deterrence capability. It also riddles holes in the country's nuclear force
claims, as the whole idea behind the Pokhran tests was to strengthen the view
that India possessed a credible nuclear deterrent.
Thus, Santhanam's revelations are likely to have far-reaching reverberations in
the country's security policy. Many attribute Santhanam's outburst to political
motivation. Why else, they argue, would the scientist feel the need to rake up
the issue after 11 years? Others feel Santhanam has put forth this view now
because he's not keen on India signing the CTBT. The scientist maintains that
India should not rush to sign the treaty before conducting more tests and
augmenting its nuclear weapons program.
Many in the Indian scientific establishment are against India giving up the
option of further tests. They feel it is vital to conduct more tests to
calibrate India's thermonuclear bomb to perfection. Another theory doing the
rounds is that raking up the nuclear tests issue now may well be a devious ploy
to test again.
Neeta Lal is a widely published writer/commentator who contributes to
many reputed national and international print and Internet publications.