Pokhran stirs N-debate

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By OUR BUREAU in Delhi
  • Published 27.08.09

New Delhi, Aug. 27: Fresh concerns articulated by a former defence research official about the performance of India’s hydrogen bomb tested 11 years ago have bolstered long-simmering arguments that India should keep open its nuclear weapons testing option, analysts said.

K. Santhanam, who was involved in the nuclear weapons tests in Pokhran on May 11 and May 13, 1998, said earlier this week that the thermonuclear device — a hydrogen bomb — tested on May 11 had not delivered its desired yield. In two sets of tests, India had exploded five weapons — a 15-kiloton fission bomb, three sub-kiloton fission bombs, and a 45-kiloton hydrogen bomb.

A team of US researchers had expressed doubts about the yield, indicating that its own analysis of seismic waves had suggested a lower yield. But Indian atomic energy scientists who had designed the weapons maintained that the tests were successful, and indicated that India did not need to test any more weapons, prompting the government to announce a unilateral moratorium.

But Santhanam, now 71, told a not-for-attribution meeting at New Delhi’s Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) — the defence ministry’s think tank — this week that the thermonuclear weapon device had under-performed. During a discussion on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), he said India needed to conduct more tests and added that he was against India signing the CTBT.

Defence analysts said Santhanam appeared to be airing views that he had been articulating for long in closed circles. In an informal chat, he had once described the thermonuclear test as a “bum tickle”.

This assessment of the thermonuclear weapons test is shared by several former scientists from India’s nuclear establishment, said Bharat Karnad, a strategic affairs analyst at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

In his book India’s Nuclear Policy, Karnad has documented concerns about the test among former director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, A.N. Prasad, and the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, P.K. Iyengar.

Prasad and Iyengar are among scientists who believe there was a problem with the thermonuclear test. Many of these scientists believe the 1998 test was inadequate and more are required.

Karnad’s book mentions a senior DRDO official who some six months after the May 1998 tests recommended resumption of testing to the government because he was convinced that the test of the hydrogen bomb was inadequate for the purposes of developing simulation software and designing performance-capable thermonuclear weapons. The official said he supported the official line on the test moratorium because of “functioning pressures”.

Karnad told The Telegraph that the DRDO official was Santhanam, who had earlier spoken to him on a non-attribution basis.

India’s navy chief, who is currently the senior most military commander, said today the armed forces believed they had a credible nuclear deterrent.

“As far as we are concerned, we go by the views of the scientists. They have given us certain capabilities — we are quite happy to go with it,” said Admiral Sureesh Mehta, the chairman, chiefs of staff committee.

“Our policy continues to be that of ‘no first strike’. This presumes that we will have the capability to survive a first strike, for which we maintain a credible deterrence,” he said.

The Indian armed forces were developing capabilities to launch nuclear weapons from land, from air and from the sea (underwater). The unveiling of the country’s first nuclear-capable submarine, the INS Arihant, by the Prime Minister earlier this month is evidence that India has persisted with its effort to develop credible nuclear deterrent and delivery systems.

“I am not particularly aware of what Santhanam has said. But the armed forces have a road map and we are following that,” Mehta said.