But the big one fizzled

The Department of Atomic Energy should not have bluffed about the H-Bomb in 1998

In a press conference on May 17, 1998—days after the Pokhran-II nuclear tests—R Chidambaram, head of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Atomic Energy said that one of the devices tested a two-state thermonuclear bomb with a yield of 45 kT. “The range can go quite high” he said, “but we were limited in the total yield by the damage it may cause to habitations nearby.” One of those present at that press conference was K Santhanam, who was then a senior official at DRDO and who played a leading role in conducting the tests. Those who followed the technical debate in the international nuclear weapons community at that time will recall that foreign analysts had challenged India’s claims and argued, based on seismographic studies, that the yield of the thermonuclear device was in the region of 12-25kT.

In a television interview yesterday, Dr Santhanam accepted that the foreign analysts were right: “Based upon the seismic measurements and expert opinion from world over, it is clear that the yield in the thermonuclear device test was much lower than what was claimed.” He cited this as the reason why India needs to conduct more nuclear tests, and why it should not be ‘railroaded’ into signing a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Dr Santhanam’s revelation does not alter India’s nuclear deterrence relationships: can an adversary rest any easier knowing that it’s not, after all, a 45kT thermonuclear bomb that they are likely to receive in retaliation, but merely a 20kT fission bomb? The differential in megatonnage does not change strategic picture all that much.

But the admission raises a serious question: were the scientists bluffing then or is Dr Santhanam lying now? More importantly, did they only mislead the public or did they also mislead the political leadership?

The strategic impact of Pokhran-II would not have changed if the scientists had actually admitted then that the thermonuclear bomb had fizzled, and more testing was necessary to fix the design. No one had gotten it right the first time anyway. But claiming to have a strategic weapon that they didn’t—and which the world knew they didn’t—at best fooled no one and at worst fooled the political leaders who had a finger on the button.

In the public mind, the nuclear scientist carries more credibility than the politician—due to reasons of information asymmetry, regard for intellectual accomplishment and the belief that they are non-partisan. If indeed it was a false claim—as it almost certainly is—it was unnecessary. It has dented the credibility of the individuals and the organisations that made it. The coming discourse over CTBT and FMCT has become all the more treacherous.

41 thoughts on “But the big one fizzled”

  1. Going by what Brajesh Mishra is saying, it seems the Political leadership too was fooled by the Scientists. Mishra says Abdul Kalam said “the test was a success”, so its a success. Infact Kalam must have been the line between truth and false.

  2. If this Obama Administration ratchets up the pressure on having CTBT “entry into force” clause, then the consequences of the US adopting such an unwise and globally destabilizing posture will be another round of testing by India.
    That is likely to be the main implication of this Mr. Santhanam’s statement, which has been denied by the Indian govt., as it would be expected to, even though Mr. Santhanam could not have made that statement without explicit permission from the GoI.

  3. Is there a high level “psyops” by some ppl working for the GoI? The timing of the statement raises several questions? Do the scientists know what went wrong with the TN device? Was it jus low yield or a complete fizzle? Is India planning for a test sometime soon? Can India do such a thing considering the political and economic costs? Questions, questions!!

  4. As much as I respect Dr Kalam he is not a nuclear scientist, is he? So I guez his statements should be taken with a pinch of salt. It is not jus the yield that’s the difference between fission and fusion device. It is how much and how easily the yield can be ratcheted up as well. Considering India’s NFU it is important that India has a damn good deterrent that can take off the map those who mess with her. And that includes “non-state actors” as well.

  5. The one thing this statement does is raise the bar for acceptance of signing CTBT in the Indian parliament. The opposition will make a lot of hay out of this.

  6. @Nitin

    The differential in megatonnage does not change strategic picture all that much.

    True, no adversary would want to verify the proposition “Indian theater nukes are not powerful enough”. But they probably won’t be used anyway.

    Compared to such H-bomb types, the smaller tactical nukes are more likely to be used in the event of a war. If you believe the same experts, the “small ones” didn’t even explode!

  7. I would believe that the desert sands have a tendency to absorb the seismic wave and hence the confusion.

    Isnt 25 KT good enough as a deterrent.. I guess it can take out a city

  8. Siddharth Varadarajan seems to have a decent explanation in today’s Hindu.

    But notwithstanding the success or failure of Pokhran, we’re going to need more tests anyway. One of the requirements of nuclear deterrence is regular upgradation of the arsenal with the latest technology. I dont think we have the technology for simulated nuclear testing. One test in 1998 is not enough to validate any recently evolved technology. So testing is here to stay. I dont know whether Santhanam is lying or whatever but he’s completely right in warning that we should not be forced into signing the CTBT.

  9. Or is it possible that Manmohan has already decided to sign the CTBT and the scientific community is trying to create doubts so as to prevent a political consensus?

    Remember, BJP today is in no shape to take a coherent stand either way. The quartet that knows anything abt this issue is now the rebel league. The official BJP is likely to come up with some “hindu bomb cannot be bartered” kinda argument which will be laughed away by the media and the liberals.

    Didn’t this happen in 2007 as well. The Quartet sans Brajesh put up a valiant fight against signing a lopsided deal. But since BJP had no credibility at that point (with Advani still begging to be made PM candidate), even ppl like Nitin ridiculed those opposed to the deal.

  10. The big one fizzled? Sez who? The director of DFRL? 🙂

    Whatever happened to the views of actual nuclear scientists and the people who actually designed the device?

    As for the Western foreign analysts, their expertise was on full display after the recent North Korean test. Why the propensity to readily lap up whatever they say but the absolute distrust of the Indian establishment?

  11. K Santhanam himself says he revealed it now to prevent signing the CTBT. He’s a bomb designer, and it’s unlikely he’d want India to enter a test ban before the bomb design is proven.

    Like if the computer lab tech chases me out just a couple of compiles before my beautiful code begins working.

    Understandable.

    But I think we ought to oppose signing CTBT for an entirely different reason. It is not prudent to rule out options when China is opaquely building up its forces.

  12. Udayan,

    Santhanam is not a bomb designer. He was in charge of the instrumentation at the site.

    Chidambaram and Sikka were the bomb designers. I doubt if Santhanam was even told what the design yields were.

    I’m increasingly coming around to the view propagated by some worthies that Santhanam did this at the behest of the GoI, for whatever reason.

  13. Who cares what the yield of those tests are when this country has shackled itself with no first use nonsense? India should have ratcheted up the rhetoric about a nuclear conflagration in this region instead of being defensive about it.

    If anything, we should take a page from the Iranian playbook. They are getting closer to developing nuclear weapons as crude as their initial design may be. But there is no doubt that Iran would never hesitate to use these weapons if t they want to – there are people in the US and Israel who wet their pants at the thought of the mullahs having nukes – for good reason.

    Let’s face it – Indian foreign policy is woefully inadequate and amateurish at best. Is any one surprised by this news? The only question is timing.Why now?

  14. Ashutosh,
    Good point about delivery systems and using what ever weapons strategically.

  15. What specific problem are these nuclear weapons going to solve? Most of the India’s biggest problems right now have nothing to do with deterrence, and can cause much more harm to India than any problem caused by the lack of a ready-and-working nuclear arsenal. Even if such an arsenal existed today, it cannot be used in practise against any of the internal or external adversaries India faces.

    I disagree that Indian foreign policy is amateurish…it only looks that way to amateurs who do not understand the policy prerogatives and priorities of the Indian govt.

  16. Guys – I think the issue here is not really the size of the bomb – rather it is the quality of its design.

    From a technical standpoint, having the capability to build a *provably functional* system provides key inputs into its further improvements (e.g. miniaturization, automation etc.). Conversely, a dud puts you back at the drawingboard.

    Given their very nature, nukes once built are rarely tested (and even rarely used) – in their lifetimes, and their upgradation and maintenance should obviously be a lot different from upgrading, say, a microprocessor architecture.

    So it makes sense to have a good design before going for stopping further testing. This is the context of the debate, IMO.

  17. I disagree that Indian foreign policy is amateurish…it only looks that way to amateurs who do not understand the policy prerogatives and priorities of the Indian govt.
    Really ? I am sure it must be the experts of Indian foreign policy who must have decided that it could fool the world.

    Would these great gynanis be the same people who passively watched China’s string of pearls strategy – i am sure these are the same people who helped MMS with that Balochistan declaration as well.

    These guys sure work in strange ways that is not possible for us mere amateur mortals to observe.

  18. Nagarajan Sivakumar wrote:
    “Would these great gynanis be the same people who passively watched China’s string of pearls strategy ”

    That is certainly an opinion. China has poor ocean connectivity and needs intermediate storage points to optimize using china’s resources/money. India has no such problems sitting right in the middle of the Indian ocean and astride all global shipping lanes.

    If you think India should have “string of diamonds” strategy or something else, please spell it out — the chinese have such a strategy because it matches their requirements. India has other requirements that have more to do with calming down its neighbourhood, which takes higher priority than asserting its control of the Indian ocean, which is not cheap….someone has to pay for big ships keeping the peace in the Indian ocean. It is cheaper for India to share these costs with other countries until there is good reason not to.

    Thank you.

  19. I would venture to opine that the Balochistan declaration has turned out to be the equivalent of breaking wind in a thunderstorm as far as its impact on Indo-Pakistan relations, or even anything concrete. Pakistan is yet to prove its India-friendly credentials, and India has nothing to discuss with a congenitally hostile Pakistan that seems to believe India is in Balochistan even when India is not, as was clearly stated by India.

  20. Photonman:
    “Given their very nature, nukes once built are rarely tested (and even rarely used) – in their lifetimes,”

    No, that is wrong. If that was the case, why do you think the CTBT contains a clause that allows the USA and the P-5 to conduct sub-critical testing of their weapons “for maintenance”. In fact, nukes are expensive to maintain after they are built for precisely this reason — they need to be kept in shape to ensure that they have not magically transformed into a very expensive stone when no one was looking.

  21. @ Alagu Periaswamy

    I was referring to nukes that are actually deployed, not to their design. So I see no contradiction between your comment and mine.

    Given their intended use, it is hard to find sufficient instances of their “real-life” use, to rectify design faults or improve the design. This is unlike say, a machine gun or an automobile. Also the numbers and their complexity make it very difficult to physically verify the readiness of every unit (that could also be prohibitively expensive).

    The only way out is to rely on statistical analysis and simulations, and of course, subcritical tests of a small number of them, as you point out.

    The trouble is these will work only if you have enough data to start with. For that data to be of any use, it should be produced by a number of successful actual tests. This requires a reliable design. Hence you can stop actual testing only if there is a reliable design 🙂

  22. China has poor ocean connectivity and needs intermediate storage points to optimize using china’s resources/money. India has no such problems sitting right in the middle of the Indian ocean and astride all global shipping lanes.

    Well, if all China did was to use these as “storage” points, why would any one be alarmed ? You miss the point about how China gains strategic influence with each of these pearls – asking these countries to do its bidding as and when required.

    Pretty much like what Marlon Brando does in the Godfather – he does not flex his muscles unnecessarily – but at the same time he never misses a chance to remind people how he helped them and how they owe him one.

    If you think that all that China wants to do is to have “trade” relations with Sri Lanka, I dont know what to say.

    If you think India should have “string of diamonds” strategy or something else, please spell it out — the chinese have such a strategy because it matches their requirements.

    Straw man argument – every one knows that China is landlocked but for its Eastern coastline – but that does not mean that India should be sitting idly by as China proceeds to build its influence in each of these countries – of course we have had terrible relations with all our neighbors with the exception of Bhutan and Tibet, and there fore our efforts should be focused on greater trade relations with Japan, Korea, Australia and other ASEAN nations – and competing with China in its own backyard.

    Nothing talks like money and economic growth- it is because of China’s economic muscle that it has been able to pursue its strategy for regional hegemony.

    Notice how China was trying to stop ADB’s loan to India – their excuse was that a measly 100 mil went to a project in “oh the blasphemy” Arunachal Pradesh!

    But this was more than just disputed territory they were worried about – it is an increase in India’s economic ties with Asia that concerns China.

    India has other requirements that have more to do with calming down its neighbourhood, which takes higher priority than asserting its control of the Indian ocean, which is not cheap….someone has to pay for big ships keeping the peace in the Indian ocean.
    Which neighborhood exactly have we calmed ?? Kashmir has been less violent in the last 6 years than any other time. Assam has not been terrible either – all of these have been manageable – the naxal problem has become worse, but i dont see any major initiative or action to calm things down.

    And a country that cannot project its naval power within its own backyard is not going to be able to project it anywhere else – Granted the Indian Ocean is a vast expanse – but if we are going to sit silently when the Chinese increase their influence on Sri Lanka, we might as well roll over.

    It is cheaper for India to share these costs with other countries until there is good reason not to
    There are things that cannot be estimated merely by monetary cost – strategic influence is one of them – we may not be there yet, but that does not mean that we have to be content with being just another player in the Indian Ocean.

    But may be we should start by trying not to bluff our way out of nuclear test yields – unless there is a Chanakyan strategy here, i dont see what they could have been thinking.

  23. Nagarajan Sivakumar wrote:
    “Well, if all China did was to use these as “storage” points, why would any one be alarmed ? You miss the point about how China gains strategic influence with each of these pearls – asking these countries to do its bidding as and when required.”

    Those countries will do China’s bidding only as long as China has cash to throw around…and the world is not going to end this decade or this century.

    “Straw man argument -”

    I am not arguing with you. I asked you what strategy you think India should follow to counter China, since clearly you believe India has not done enough.

  24. “Which neighborhood exactly have we calmed ?? Kashmir has been less violent in the last 6 years than any other time. Assam has not been terrible either – all of these have been manageable – the naxal problem has become worse, but i dont see any major initiative or action to calm things down.”

    I do not understand if you are agreeing or disagreeing, has the NE and J&K and Sri Lanka and Nepal calmed down or not compared to a decade ago? I would say it has based on the news, and I imagine your opinion would be the opposite. The maoist problem is not an external/foreign affairs issue, though a serious internal one.

  25. Nagarajan wrote:
    “There are things that cannot be estimated merely by monetary cost – strategic influence is one of them – we may not be there yet, but that does not mean that we have to be content with being just another player in the Indian Ocean.”

    If only the Indian Navy could run all its ships using Honour and Dignity as fuel…but no, you need cold hard cash (in the order of lakhs of ruppees per minute in terms of operational costs).

  26. I am not arguing with you. I asked you what strategy you think India should follow to counter China, since clearly you believe India has not done enough.

    You may want to read my post again on what i proposed. Stronger trade ties with Japan. Korea, Australia and ASEAN nations – competing with China in their backyard

    If only the Indian Navy could run all its ships using Honour and Dignity as fuel…but no, you need cold hard cash (in the order of lakhs of ruppees per minute in terms of operational costs).
    Well, i thought our Navy ships did run on Honour.. but, I digress.
    Every one understands that the costs are high, and the benefits are low – for now. This how ever should not preclude us from projecting our power as needed.

    How ever for this to realistically happen, India needs to be a bigger economic power. thats our bigger problem now.

  27. Nagarqajan S. wrote:
    “You may want to read my post again on what i proposed. Stronger trade ties with Japan. Korea, Australia and ASEAN nations – competing with China in their backyard”

    And what makes you think India is not trying? If you followed the news, you would know that India signed up or is working on a FTA with ASEAN. Japan and Australia have problems working with India, but that is not because India has not tried. China has more money right now, and can pay to attract attention of these countries away from India — how do you propose India fix that? (google for ASEAN and India to see the above news item I mention).

    “Well, i thought our Navy ships did run on Honour.. but, I digress.”

    No, they run on Diesel by Seamen like most other ships.

    “Every one understands that the costs are high, and the benefits are low – for now. This how ever should not preclude us from projecting our power as needed.”

    You may want to revisit the whole cost/benefit analysis thingie — it is silly to pay high costs for little benefit. In fact, I am not saying there is no benefit, the somali pirates and other pakistani criminals have been very active in terrorizing civilian ships and vessels in the Arabian and the persian gulf. Now, why do you want India to pay for protecting ships from other countries without proper remuneration? Isn’t it better to split these costs until the time when India can afford to do all this on its own?

    “How ever for this to realistically happen, India needs to be a bigger economic power. thats our bigger problem now.”

    That is correct. It is mostly the lack of resources that results in India taming down its ambitions to more realistic and achievable goals.

  28. BTW, Korea already has a large presence in India, Kia, Hyundai and other South Korean companies have already stated India as one of their key markets, so India has good relations with S. Korea at this time.

  29. And what makes you think India is not trying? If you followed the news, you would know that India signed up or is working on a FTA with ASEAN. Japan and Australia have problems working with India, but that is not because India has not tried.

    Quite frankly, i dont follow Indian news as of late. But you have to ask yourself why Japan and Australia have problems working with India. Really, why is that ? is this country too much of a bureaucratic rigarmole?

    China has more money right now, and can pay to attract attention of these countries away from India — how do you propose India fix that? (google for ASEAN and India to see the above news item I mention).

    And how exactly did a country where millions of people died in the “Great Leap Forward” come to the point that it has an economy that is four times bigger than its nearest competitor in the region that had similar population levels and was mainly agrarian based ?

    China didnt get to the point where it is today, by sheer luck or a just a course of events – honestly tell me ,which country is more open to business?
    EVEN if we agree that both of them are corrupt to the same level, WHICH country is more business savvy and encourages businesses better ?

    Who has better infrastructure, has more Internet and cell phone subscribers than any other country in the world ? Why is it that Japan, Australia have lesser problems dealing with an authoritarian Govt than the largest democracy in the world ?

    India is nowhere close to China when it comes to encouraging businesses to flourish – forget every thing else. China does not need to “attract” any one away – we do their bidding ourselves….

    if you are a businessman who wants to trade with Indian companies and the first time you land at the Bombay Airport and see how crappy it is and then go to Beijing, and contrast it, who are they going to be more impressed by ?

    You may want to revisit the whole cost/benefit analysis thingie — it is silly to pay high costs for little benefit.
    I did – i think we are talking past each other here – we both agree on this issue – without India being economically more advanced, leadership in the Indian ocean is a mirage and costly dream to chase.

    Now that does not mean we should give up our ambition to be so in the future – and you evidently agree on that as well.

    BTW, Korea already has a large presence in India, Kia, Hyundai and other South Korean companies have already stated India as one of their key markets, so India has good relations with S. Korea at this time.
    I agree – we have had better relations with Korea economically. Good point.

  30. @Alagu Periyaswamy,
    Thank you for your thoughtful exchange of ideas and arguments in this thread.

  31. Nagarajan Siavkumar wrote:
    “if you are a businessman who wants to trade with Indian companies and the first time you land at the Bombay Airport and see how crappy it is and then go to Beijing, and contrast it, who are they going to be more impressed by ?”

    I think investors are liable to overlook all this if they see a potential market for their high-tech goods, but I agree that Indian airports and cities are just pathetic and pukeworthy in their maintenance. Have you smelled the cooum river that runs through Adayar in Chennai? Various governments have allotted crores of rupees to clean up this river and the money was swallowed by corrupt politicians and their cronies in the bureaucracy.

    Anyway, this is the reason why India’s ability to acquire power and resources for its benefit is a lot slower than it is for china, IMO. But then, it is what it is, so we have to work with it.

  32. Have you smelled the cooum river that runs through Adayar in Chennai? Various governments have allotted crores of rupees to clean up this river and the money was swallowed by corrupt politicians and their cronies in the bureaucracy.
    How embarrassing is it to admit now that I am from Adyar 🙂 Yes, its not as bad as it used to be – although i ve not been home in the last 4 years and i cannot attest to how bad it is right now.

    My point about the appearance of our airports was that EVEN if we do have a large consumer market, it is going to remind businesses of essentially how horrible basic infrastructure is in this country – and that simply does not inspire confidence. When any one does business, and it does end up as successful, there would only be an “inspite of” feeling to it.

    This is where China handily beats us – actually that would be an understatement.

    We have always had great potential and have been more than content to just have potential – as you point out, we have continued to “work with the system” we have, with all the inefficiencies it has.

    That may be good enough to keep us going in the short term, but its not going to enable/empower us in the long term. We may always be the next potential power

  33. Nagarajan Sivakumar, Sorry for dissing your neighbourhood. I do not have many friends in Madras anymore, but the Cooum always greets my nose like an old friend to this day. 🙂 But I agree with you, external appearances such as good infrastructure inspires confidence in investors about the ease of doing business and making doing business in India easy and free of red tape and corruption and poor planning and infrastructure, like it currently is.

  34. Sorry for dissing your neighbourhood. I do not have many friends in Madras anymore, but the Cooum always greets my nose like an old friend to this day

    Ohh please, no offense taken ! As you pointed out, we have lived with the stench for a long time.

    Its almost a metaphor or something for living with the system 🙂

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