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.