The Prime Minister has declared, “we believe our scientists”, to counter the revelation by former DRDO nuclear weapons programme director K. Santhanam that our thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb test of May 11 1998 was a fizzle.
This sounds like an invocation to deity. But scientists are not gods, or infallible prophets. Like other human beings they can and do lie, or shade the truth, for an assortment of reasons, not the least, to protect their own reputations and further their careers.
And what a trajectory some of those careers have taken. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the rocket engineer who was Santhanam’s boss at the DRDO already had a Bharat Ratna, and so his reward has been the presidency of the republic. R. Chidambaram, the chairman of the department of atomic energy at the time, got every Tambrahm bureaucrat’s dream — a life-time sinecure in the government. Since his retirement in 2000, he has been Principal Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister.
Kalam has been one of the best presidents India has had, and it is a pity he was not re-nominated to the office. He is a decent and empathetic human being and has been an inspirational manager who brings out the maximum from his team. By the time the nuclear tests took place he was already an iconic figure.
But he was not a nuclear physicist. His knowledge of the subject would be that of a good B.Sc student. He was, of course, the head of department of the DRDO when the nuclear test took place. But his point man on the bomb programme was Santhanam.
Public record shows that the DRDO collected the nuclear devices from BARC in Mumbai, took it to Pokhran, and took it down the various shafts that had been readied. They laid the cables and instruments to record the outcome of the tests, and then carried out the tests. Santhanam has been clever in attributing the seismic information questioning the efficacy of the thermonuclear test to western sources so as not to fall afoul of the Official Secrets Act. But we can deduce that the DRDO readings, too, indicated a sub-optimal performance of the device.
K. Santhanam (r) handing over the firing keys to the range safety officer Col Vasudev (l) on May 11, 1998 at Pokhran. Looking on is current Department of Atomic Energy chief Anil KakodkarThere was reportedly another type of a test called the CORRTEX, but no details of its outcome are available. (Note: Since the article appeared in print, I found out that a CORRTEX did indeed take place and its findings, too, confirmed the fact that the test was a "fizzle".) But this, too, would have been under DRDO’s auspices. Santhanam reportedly sent a detailed note on the May 11 and 13th nuclear tests to the government. The DAE subsequently drilled holes into the cavities formed by the tests and conducted radio-chemical analyses. Some of its officials subsequently wrote papers backing the official yield for the tests.
But the problem is not scientific, but political. Having had the guts to test, the NDA soon developed cold feet. Actors like Jaswant Singh quickly wanted to reassure the US and declared that India would commit itself to a no first use posture. Later, Prime Minister Vajpayee declared that India would maintain a unilateral moratorium on testing. So, it was necessary for the government to accept that the tests had, indeed, been a resounding success. A meeting to discuss the contradictory DRDO and DAE findings decided that the former’s equipment “malfunctioned”, and that the DAE findings were accurate, since they were also validated by a seismic array station run by them at Gauribidanur.
Kalam’s own career as a bureaucrat is a cautionary tale about our sarkari scientists. Whatever may have been his successes as SLV-3 project manager, his tenure as DRDO chief has been something of a disaster. The public is familiar with the fact that three of the four missiles that were part of the Integrated Missile Development Programme that he headed in the 1983-1993 period, failed to reach the development stage.
But they do not know that the fourth, the Prithvi, too, is of little value. A bulky and cumbersome missile is vulnerable to anti-missile defences and since it requires the services of as many as three large vehicles — the TEL carrying the missile, a power supply and a command post truck — it is a sitting duck in today’s networked battlefield.
But, Kalam’s bigger failure was with Agni. On his insistence, the first Agni, now conveniently called a “technology demonstrator”, was a peculiar hybrid of the SLV I and the Prithvi. Only reluctantly was he persuaded to make a missile with a solid-solid configuration. This has meant that both the stages of the missile were actually built by the Indian Space Research Organisation. Today this is called Agni-II, though it has been declared successful after only two tests.
Kalam’s departure also led to a discreet parking of the Prithvi as a battlefield support missile with the Army’s artillery battalions. For Pakistan-specific nuclear delivery, the DRDO came up with a 700-km solid propelled Agni which is now called Agni I only in 2002 because, till he was in service, Kalam insisted that the Prithvi could do the job. Because of these diversions, India’s long-range missile deterrent has been delayed by about a decade and even today it depends on aircraft dropped weapons, not missile borne, for its credible minimum deterrent.
The list of Kalam’s failures is long, but some stand out. In the late 1980s, when the Aeronautical Development Establishment which was developing the Pilotless Target Aircraft, wanted to launch a cruise missile programme, Kalam, a ballistic missile man, put his foot down. In the 1980s, India could have accessed any Soviet technology it wanted, but Kalam’s ballistic missile obsession obscured his vision.
The result is that today India has no cruise missile of its own while Pakistan is on the verge of deploying its 800-km range Babur and another Air Launched Cruise Missile called Ra’ad. India has had to develop the Brahmos with Russia, but its range is limited because of Moscow’s Missile Technology Control Regime commitments.
Another significant failure was in the acquisition of the weapons locating radar. In the early 1990s, the US offered us their AN/TPPQ 37 as a gesture of friendship (conditioned by the fact they had already supplied it to Islamabad and that this was a clearly “defensive” system). Kalam declared that the DRDO would make its own. By early 1998, it became clear that the DRDO project was not working. Kalam told the government to buy one system for the DRDO to reverse engineer. By that time it was too late; in the wake of the Pokhran test, the US embargoed India and the offer stood withdrawn. So, Indian artillery operated blind in the Kargil war of 1999.
Kalam’s very prestige became his, and his country’s, worst enemy. He had attained oracular status by 1998, and the result was that the governments of the day blindly accepted what he had to say. He was not willfully dishonest, but his fixations and whims led to diversions and delays for which the country has paid a huge price. Perhaps his greatest, and in a sense forgivable, weakness was his obsession on “indigenous”
But the argument that India’s missiles are “indigenous” and Pakistan’s are based on Chinese, American, North Korean or someone else’s technology is a meaningless one. Military acquisitions are not about the “purity” of solutions, but time-urgent answers to a problem. And who will deny that Pakistan has got more than enough “solutions” in the nuclear weapon delivery area, to any threat India can offer?
So the issue thrown up by K. Santhanam is not about undermining Manmohan Singh’s foreign policy or questioning the “achievements” of our infallible scientists. It is not about “belief”, but the “validation” of a scientific/technical event on which the country’s nuclear deterrent is based. If there are doubts about the event, they cannot be addressed by shooting the messenger, but by a scientific process, maybe by a commission of unimpeachable scientists.
Of course, there is always the option of saying that we don’t really need a thermonuclear weapon; after all, even Pakistan doesn’t claim to have one.
This was published first in Mail Today September 2, 2009