Thursday, December 24, 2009

deterrence? what deterrence?

dec 24th, 2009

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: A P J
Date: Thu, Dec 17, 2009 at 2:39 AM
Subject: On thermonuclear test in today's New Indian Express

By V Sudarshan
17 Dec 2009 12:22:00 AM IST , New Indian Express

Posturing ? deterrence 
The former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Anil Kakodkar appeared in a television channel on September 13 and preposterously assured our military forces that they had an arsenal of ready-to-use nuclear bombs from the low kilotonnes all the way up to 200 kilotonnes and that arsenal is "guaranteed" to work. In a confidence boosting soundbyte he said: "I think that is guaranteed. The army should be fully confident and defend the country." The timing is most curious. There is usually no shortage of speaking opportunities to make such points when a person like Kakodkar is still in service and it is not as if the Department of Atomic Energy has not had the occasion to take the floor in continuing attempts to defend the underperforming thermonuclear device that was exploded in May 1998.  From the way the former chairman was going about handing out certificates to himself and the makers of the partially successful thermonuclear bomb it almost appeared that he was jockeying to become the next science adviser to the prime minister while at the same time placing the ISI (Indian Standards Institution) imprimatur on a weapon the armed forces are being forced to live with without proper user trials.
Kakodkar implies that the army must accept the word of the bomb designers in good faith and leave it at that. As one scientist pointed out to this writer: "Why is it that there are so many flight trials for Agni to verify the various parameters while the thermonuclear weapon must make do with only computer simulations and that too with data from a partially successful experiment?" He has a point of course. It is like putting pilots in charge of a high capacity passenger aircraft based solely on experience of flight simulators. If you knew that the pilot going to fly you had no actual aircraft flying hours to his/her credit, would you still want him or her fly you?

There are a number of points that Kakodkar makes that invite scrutiny. He says that the one thermonuclear test is enough because the knowledge base had expanded and the capabilities had also expanded. And that Dr P K Iyengar knows only what has been published and does not know about the 1998 tests first hand. Taken together, this is glib postulation. A design of the boosted fission trigger was worked out in the Eighties when Dr Iyengar was the chairman. That design was scalable to 45 kt. If the tests had occurred in 1995 when Narasimha Rao backed out at the last moment, that device would probably have been tested. It is not as if the BARC crowd in May 1998 reinvented the wheel so far as thermonuclear weapon was concerned. It cannot be that the team which designed the weapon alone can be the custodians of information. From the general working principles experts are well within their rights to ask legitimate questions.

Kakodkar, a mechanical engineer by training, also shockingly asserts that the DRDO instruments that measured the seismic values did not work. Measuring instruments are central to any nuclear test. These, I am told, are tested again and again to ensure there is no failure. It cannot be that before the tests the instruments were found to be in perfect working condition and when they gave out their results it is deemed that they were not working. And it certainly cannot be that the DRDO embarked on a five month process of analysing the data and wrote a 50-page report and sent it to the office of the then National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra formally through the office of Abdul Kalam based on malfunctioning seismic instruments. The fact of the matter is simple: the tests were conducted simultaneously because the weapons team wanted to be in a position to fudge the readings in case the thermonuclear test went awry, which in fact seems to have patently happened.

It is therefore understandable that Kakodkar is reluctant to have the data from the thermonuclear test peer reviewed. He does not wish a veritable Pandora's box to be opened. What is out in the public is embarrassing enough. But that there is a case for a review is clearly underlined by the comments of two national security advisers. Bharat Karnad in his book India's Nuclear Policy (Praeger Security, 2008; pages 69-70) quotes Brajesh Mishra as saying: Who am I to go and say (these tests did not work)" says Mishra, "and...I will appoint a commission to enquire into whether the scientists are telling the truth or not?" Many years later the current national security adviser M K Narayanan also echoes a similar sentiment: He rejected the suggestion that a panel of scientists could review the Pokhran test results, not because it would be superfluous or unnecessary, but because it would be difficult to get neutral, independent scientists who could investigate the matter. "Which peer scientists are we going to bring in (for a panel)? All those peer scientists are part of the establishment or are sceptics," he said, appearing (on September 20) in the same television show as Kakodkar. Both Mishra and Narayanan implicitly concede that they are not the best judges of the issue and that it would be wonderful if the claims of their scientists could be verified independently and non-controversially. The dilemma: how do you bell this cat? This dilemma persists.

Ultimately the armed forces need to be satisfied for themselves that the deterrence at their command is fail-safe. But does the army have sufficient expertise in nuclear weapon engineering to assess the spiel given to them by the Bombay nuclear crowd? You cannot have a publicly haemorrhaging debate and still pretend that you have a credible deterrence. If it is not credible to your key scientific community, how credible is it going to look to our potential adversaries? The armed forces need to do their own calculations on the matter. It is army engineers who sank the shaft for the thermonuclear bomb. So they know the depth of the shaft. The claim of the 45-kilotonne yield made by the DAE is also known. The geology of Pokhran and in particular the shaft that had the thermonuclear device placed can also be determined. The relevant seismological details flowing from the device yield can also be factored in. If the DAE can do simulations so should the army do its own calculations to find out if the claims made by Anil Kakodkar and R Chidambaram have any merit.
Once this is worked out our armed forces should have a good idea of where and how robust our thermonuclear deterrence is. Whether it is only in the mind of the bomb makers? Or in the perception of our potential adversaries as well? Ultimately, deterrence, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder.
About the author:
V Sudarshan is the Executive Editor of The New Indian Express
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