Saturday, September 19, 2009

H-bomb failure demands that we re-write our nuclear strategy and doctrine

Facts have consequences, especially facts that are inconvenient. The fact that India's hydrogen bomb failed in its first and only test is one such truth. It has consequences for the country's nuclear doctrine, force posture as well as foreign policy issues relating to the US and China, and our approach to the comprehensive test ban treaty and the fissile material cut off treaty.
In such circumstances what was considered true in the past must be discarded and new choices must be made. Take the most important one. Should India resume nuclear testing? There will be some who argue that the logic of the situation demands just that. I, for one, am agnostic. India is not a bold country. Our conduct during the 1998 nuclear tests itself suggests that.
Having broken the informal embargo on nuclear tests, we rushed in indecent haste to reassure the world of the goodness of our heart. This took two forms — first the offer of the pledge of no first use and a defensive nuclear doctrine. The second, the commitment to a unilateral moratorium. Both were made hurriedly and did not benefit from a wider debate in the government or the country.


2009 is not the same as 1998. The most important difference is the relative power of China and the US. The last time around, a quick genuflection to the US, prevented the wrath of Beijing. Recall, that in the wake of the tests, the UN Security Council had passed Resolution 1172 which demanded, among other things, that “India and Pakistan immediately stop their nuclear weapon development programmes, refrain from weaponisation or from the deployment of nuclear weapons, cease development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons and any further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.”
Even as late as 2000, China was pressing the world community to act on this resolution. It was only when it became clear that Washington was using the Indian dissonance with China to build bridges with New Delhi, that Beijing changed tack.

Vajpayee at fission-bomb test site, the most impressive at Pokhran. With him are to his left, R. Chidambaram, head of the DAE and to his right, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam

In the present circumstances, renewed testing by India could be hazardous to our health. Things are not likely to play out as they did the last time.
Fresh tests would terminate the Indo-US nuclear deal because the Hyde Act that enabled it only provides for a waiver for Indian nuclear tests till May 13, 1998. It would also pit India against the international system which is now readying itself to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. Fire-eaters will argue that India should bash on regardless and stick it out as a pariah in the international system because its security is paramount.
I would argue for a middle-path because we know India lacks the stamina to make it alone as China did in the 1949-1970 period. Also it would confront us with the choice of forfeiting our economic destiny.
We must make do with what we have and this time we must do it well. Till now the Indian effort at weaponising its deterrent has been as fitful and lethargic as the pace of its missile programmes. Both are seriously lagging that of even Pakistan. For obvious reasons we could not weaponise the flawed thermonuclear design, but we do have a reliable fission weapon which yielded 25kT in the May 1998 test. This design could be safely boosted to a weapon of at least 50kT.
A great deal of work remains to be done in the missile field. The Agni series needs to be locked down by a series of tests to prove its reliability and accuracy. The Brahmos needs to be transformed into a longer range cruise missile capable of reaching 900-1500 km. Both the weapons and the missiles should be handed over to the armed forces, though the country may still choose to keep its weapons in a dis-assembled form.


But first we need to alter our nuclear doctrine so that it can guide us to a different kind of force posture. The doctrine of 1998 was a slapdash job. It did not arise from Indian practice or goals, but was imposed top down to convince the world that our arsenal was purely for defence and that it would be a minimalist one, though its credibility would be assured by the fact that it was in a triad of land and sea-based and air-dropped weapons.
Just how incomplete a job it was became apparent when India confronted Pakistan in the wake of the attack on Parliament in 2001 and found that our doctrine did not cover the possibility of nuclear strikes on Indian forces operating outside our national territory.
The biggest hole in it was that at the time it was enunciated, India did not have the wherewithal for the massive retaliation, or to use the politically more correct term, inflict “unacceptable” destruction and punishment on the adversary, that it promised. While doctrines may precede capability, we are now confronted with the fact that we do not have the key weapon we thought we had for inflicting massive retaliation — a thermonuclear bomb.
The Indian doctrine implied that since we had offered a “no first use” pledge, we would sustain a first strike by an adversary and then retaliate massively. This assumed that some of our already minimalist arsenal would also be destroyed in the adversary’s strike. And so there was need for, first, measures to secure our weapons against such strikes. And, second, to have weapons that would inflict the crushing retaliation.

If you take these two factors, it implied that an Indian retaliation would be of the “counter-value” type, targeting cities and population centres. These “city-busting” strikes rested on the possession of 200-300 kilotonne weapons, which cannot but be of the fusion or thermonuclear kind.


The revelations about the failure of the thermonuclear bomb means that new choices will now have to be made about our force structure since it could take 15- 20 bombs of the 25 kT variety to obtain the kind of destruction a single 200 kT thermonuclear bomb wreaks.
So out goes the minimalist posture. If we are to have a credible force, we need to redo the sums about the size of the arsenal. We also need to work out different ways of deploying and using our weapons and getting our armed forces into the picture, instead of keeping them out as is the case now.
Our new doctrine and re-engineered capabilities must be able to re-endorse the credibility of our retaliatory capabilities— minus the thermonuclear bomb. A “no first use” pledge could be a luxury in the present circumstances.
What we need is a system that will provide a guarantee that a nuclear attack on India will meet with assured retaliation.
This article appeared in Mail Today September 19, 2009


maverick said...

Dear Manoj,

The scientists' credibility is at the core of any notions of deterrence. This is true in India and elsewhere in the world. If you question that - everything becomes completely unsustainable.

If it is "true" that the scientists misled the nation on the issue of the thermonuclear yeild and a wider conspiracy within government prevented this news from coming out for so long - then absolutely no claims about India's ability to make even simple fission explosives are credible.

Add to this the fact that due recessed deterrence and international norms India has never tested a fully weaponised device mated to a delivery system.

So all these notions of a doctrine of nuclear retaliation that you mention in the article are founded on quicksand. They are unusable in an actual deterrence regime or even as parts of a response in a post-breakdown world.

When this entire matter of publicly challenging the yeilds had first been brought to my notice some years ago, I had expressed extreme unease with this particular way of doing things.

Using this sort of convoluted argument to back out a political position in favour of continued testing or weaponisation is an unprofitable way of doing things.

This stuff is doing more harm than good.

It is clear that this particular argument has been made and repeatedly rejected within the halls of government for a decade and it is also clear that the "fire eaters" lost that battle.

Maybe it is best to acknowledge that fact and leave it there - rather than make a public rona-dhona routine about this loss.

This public rona-dhona is setting us up for a situation where no amount of testing is going to be sufficient to satisfy people - i.e. we are putting ourselves on a one-way street to using a nuclear weapon on a "mixed" target.

manoj joshi said...

I don't think there is any need to be pessimistic. Clearly the fission bomb worked, as the crater it created indicates. In fact it worked robustly and gave a 25kT yield instead of the 12-15 predicted. We may not have a great deterrent, but if we play our doctrine right, we could have an effective one.

maverick said...

I am sorry, I do not see a way way to contain the debate to those terms - whereby only the fusion yeild is questioned.

The yeild claims were reviewed by a committee in 1998. By questioning them in this fashion now, one is damaging the credibility of that committee and everyone associated with it.

Our adversaries have been presented with an opportunity to question it all - everything back to 1974 itself.

People already doubt whether it will work when mounted on a real delivery system.

Furthermore if a case is successfully made that national security is mismanaged in this critical way - none of our adversaries will believe that we have the resolve to use it when time comes.

Sahab, I am not sure what the exact objective of all this is/was.
And I don't know why it was necessary to do it this way. Fortunately, it was not my decision to make but I think it has veered in the wrong direction and gone too far - I feel this has to go away now - completely and totally.

RaviCV said...

Good old "Mava" Sunil Sainis, always talking in riddles and circles. You will never see the government of india failing. but alas, the reality is very much different.

maverick said...

Dear RaviCV,

As I have indicated to numerous times before I have strong reservations about the manner in which this matter was pursued.

This was a very destructive debate and there is no way I can endorse this.

I assume that Sri. Santhanam had some cause to do it this way but I don't know what the cause is - and I don't want to know.

I do not know what has been gained by deliberately feeding delusions and then deflating them in this fashion and I do not want to speculate publicly about that.

It has always been clear to anyone that cares to think that any Indian decision with regards the CTBT is a very difficult one. We in India have simply not confronted our deepest darkest fears on this issue and we will never be able to make such choices without a very serious internal debate.

Exposing the public to these matters adds little of value. The public has their daily issues to contend with and frankly projecting the internal fears of the GoI into the public realm does little to ease the public burden. A healthy distraction for the public is always welcome - but this seems very unhealthy.

Apart from a completely unnecessary public humiliation of the Government of India - very little of substance has come out of this debate.

It is a very lossy way of transmitting information. I can't imagine that Sri. Santhanam didn't think about this when he initiated this but I am baffled as to why he went ahead with it anyway.

I can't understand if Sri. Santhanam is trying to discredit RC et al... or if he is trying to discredit himself.

Neither of those outcomes appeals to me. Even if it is neither, presently it seems like the entire S&T community's credibility has taken a beating with the suggestion that false information was planted by its leaders on the nation in a matter of such crucial importance. That outcome is equally bad as far as I can see.

I really think it is time for this to go away now.

Please correct me if I am wrong.

And if Sri. Joshi is disturbed at our discussion here, you know where to find me. I will be happy to continue there at your convenience.

maverick said...

Dear RaviCV,

On the matter of me not seeing the GoI failing - I suggest you read my recent comments on policing situation in Bombay.

That should reassure you that I am not blind to anyone's faults.

manoj joshi said...

Dear MAverick and Ravi CV,
This is somewhat outside the debate on the H-bomb, but I think it is the key.
I have a feeling that Maverick is a serving/retired government official. To me the "Sri" is a dead give away. I suspect you are used to a world of certainties of a an entity that is always right. You are pained by the development because you see the establishment coming apart as it were. I too would see it that way. I have known Santy for 25 years and when I see him say the things he is saying, I cannot but believe that we are witnessing a tectonic change. Santy was not just establishment, he was "deep" establishment. A paranoid part of me thinks that maybe he is still playing a deep establishment game.

But I would like to take you on to another tack. It is a legitimate strategy to deceive your adversary. But to deceive yourselves and your people, as it appears you have been doing, is folly.
This is not only in relation to the hydrogen bomb that is being discussed. I can think of another vital national strategic issue-- out border quarrel with China. I don't know how familiar you are with that, but in that case, too, our leaders deluded themselves and their people and we are paying the price.
Truth to me has an intrinsic value, and that is what I think the founding father of our country believed. Somehow we have strayed and today when truth is presented to us, we feel uncomfortable, dismayed.

maverick said...

Dear Manoj,

I am speaking for myself only and not for anyone else. For all practical purposes I am a nobody.

I do not believe/disbelieve anything Sri. Santhanam is saying. From what little I know of him, he chooses his words very carefully.

If some sensors reported a lower reading than others, then to me that is an acceptable outcome in any real experiment. It happens all the time as far as I know. I feel he may be drawing on a subset of the yeild measurements and making a case for whatever he wants.

I don't have a problem with that either. However it is also true that only someone with decades of experience interpreting such data and with access to all the data - can make a credible statement on these matters of yeild and design.

My problems are about the manner in which the debate overall is proceeding. There is no way to interpret the comments in the Hindu about radiochemical analysis as being anything other than a direct aspersion on Sri. Ramanna and the rest of the committee that reviewed the yeild in 1998. Given who some of those people were - that part is very damaging to science in India and one would be very natural ask if India can even make fission devices.

To my limited knowledge there has never been any unity in the scientific establishment. Cliques, cults and other assorted social groupings are too common. There has however been a rule of sorts that critical matters are not to be brought before the public in an irresponsible way.

Whatever the ultimate objective - deception, policy shift, or the search for truth - this whole thing is looking like a smear campaign against the scientists. That does not seem very responsible.

RCV said...

Dear Manoj,

Frankly, I feel that Santhanam's so-called "expose" is ill-timed, ill-advised, and irresponsible. Without getting into a debate as to the credibility of Santhanam's accusations, his public statements have probably done serious damage to India's security posture, by derating the value of India's strategic deterrent from one that is nebulous to one which is dubious!

In forthcoming posts, I will outline select political and technical issues that weigh against Santhanam's "expose". However, for starters, I feel that such public statements are unworthy of a person who has held high offices in a Nations strategic establishment. Santhanam could have served India better had he stated and debated his concerns behind closed doors and "in-camera".