Wednesday, 30 May 2012

India's Thermonuclear Test: Bombed?

A controversy has erupted over the Pokhran II tests with a former DRDO scientist and Director General of the prestigious IDSA, Dr K Santhanam, observing that the thermonuclear test was a ‘fizzle’. The timing of the controversy is of significance. Obama’s Prague speech indicates that he intends to persuade the US Senate to ratify the CTBT. Consequently, the pressure on India to sign would increase. India is therefore at a juncture where it has to decide its position. Since the Vajpayee years India has taken the position that it is not averse to signing, based on the assurance of Indian scientists that they have the capability to build the required arsenal without further tests. This has under-pinned India’s unilateral moratorium that was reiterated in the nuclear doctrine of January 2003.

Whenever there has been movement on this treaty, however, there has been pressure in India to test. In the mid nineties, the CTBT was under discussion and close to being wrapped up. Rao was held back from testing by the US discovering the preparations, but Vajpayee managed to evade US scrutiny with the Shakti tests. This time around, the CTBT is being revived after a decade in the run up to the NPT Review Conference in 2010. It is understandable that those against India signing the treaty and those in favour of further tests would like to influence India’s position. This explains the timing of the present controversy. The argument is that the hydrogen bomb having found to be a ‘dud’, credible deterrence requires further tests. With the CTBT window closing, pressure to test before signing is explicable.

This begs the question whether a thermonuclear capability is essential for deterrence. Those in favour of further tests think so. Therefore, if in the national security interest the self-imposed moratorium is required to be lifted, then so be it. This would effect the nuclear deal with the US, since the deal has a provision wherein the two countries would discuss the compulsions for testing. It would be difficult to sell the argument that a test is necessary to be certain about a thermonuclear capability. The argument therefore requires adequate justification; one that can only accrue if the link between a thermonuclear capability and deterrence credibility is conclusively established.

Those wanting further tests believe that a thermonuclear capability would help India match China. The counter value targets in China that can be held hostage by India can better be engaged with thermonuclear weapons. Hydrogen bombs are better than fission weapons for city busting since fewer are required. During a conflict, it is easier to deliver fewer weapons effectively than many. There is more bang for the buck in thermonuclear weapons, making warheads lighter. Moreover, if such a capability is ever required in future, then to foreclose the possibility forever by acceding to the CTBT would not be fair to future generations. Just as the earlier generation warded off the NPT to keep open the nuclear option, it behoves the current generation to preserve this space for the future even if there is a cost to be paid, like the technology denial regime faced by our scientists. If the question whether a thermonuclear capability is necessary for deterrence has a positive answer, the anti-CTBT lobby would carry the motion.

Deterrence, as pointed out by McGeorge Bundy, the US National Security Advisor during the Cuban missile crisis, means different things for strategists and politicians. Strategic thinking on national security has its advantages, but it needs to be sensitive to the ‘real world’ perspective of the political decision maker. In his words, "even one hydrogen bomb on one city of one's own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder." While Bundy refers to the hydrogen bomb, a couple of fission weapons on one city could be equally efficient at deterrence. Therefore, where fission or boosted fission weapons are enough, city busters are not necessary. What General Sundarji and Kenneth Waltz have said in relation to numbers - ‘more is not better when less is enough’ – is equally valid for tonnage equivalent of TNT.

The current debate has shades of the Oppenheimer-Teller argument in the early nuclear era. The H Bomb was the first of a series of weapons breakthroughs that constituted the qualitative part of the arms race. India does not intend imitating the US and the USSR. Therefore, there is no compulsion to embark down the H Bomb route. It can be hazarded that Pakistan would like to follow suit, heightening the nuclear threat to our cities, even if the threat is deterred by our prior acquisition of this capability. We would be handing future generations a MAD capability.

While the controversy may help set right the historical and scientific record, deterrence can do without the H Bomb.

No comments:

Post a Comment