It’s not so much about bigger bombs. It’s about improving command & control.
In an op-ed in The Hindu today, K Santhanam & Ashok Parthasarathi make a compelling case that the thermonuclear bomb tested in May 1998 at Pokhran was not only fizzled, but “actually failed”. They also go on to conclude that “no country having undertaken only two weapon related tests of which the core (thermonuclear) device failed, can claim to have a (CMD or credible minimum deterrence).” They arrive at this assessment despite observing that “the 25 kiloton fission device has been fully weaponised and operationally deployed on (multiple) weapon platforms.” You will be forgiven for reading this article and believing that unless India has a 300kT or megaton thermonuclear bomb fitted on a 3500-km range missile, India’s nuclear deterrence capacity is not credible.
But back in July 2007, you would have reached the opposite conclusion. “On the national security front,” Dr Santhanam then wrote in Mint “there are reasons to believe that India’s Minimum Credible Deterrent (MCD) would not be affected by turn-key power reactors built by other countries. The accumulated weapons-grade plutonium in about 40 years of operating the CIRUS reactor (40MWt) and the relatively new Dhruv reactor (100MWt) has been estimated to be sufficient for the MCD.” What he didn’t say then, and is saying now, is that yes, we have accumulated sufficient weapons-grade plutonium for minimum credible deterrence, but was half the story. The other half is that we need to build more powerful bombs, which requires more testing.
Dr Santhanam’s 2007 intervention was in support of the India-US nuclear deal. His 2009 intervention is an initial salvo in the renewed domestic debate on India’s signing the comprehensive test-ban treaty (CTBT). His silence from May 1998 till this month was perhaps due to a combination of the official secrets act, loyalties, exigencies of service and regard for the national interest.
Now, unless Dr Santhanam has another twist in the tale to be revealed at a later date, the fact that he admits that there are 25kT fission bombs “fully weaponised and operationally deployed on multiple weapon platforms” should end the debate on whether India’s deterrence is credible. As argued earlier, India’s strategic adversaries are unlikely to rest any easier knowing that their cities are threatened by mere 25kT fission bombs. They are, with India, in MUD. In a two part essay in the Indian Express, K Subrahmanyam explains the logic of India’s nuclear doctrine and why a minimum credible deterrence can be had without the need for a thermonuclear bomb.
Developing, testing and deploying a thermonuclear bomb involves grand trade-offs. But those who are interested in ensuring that India’s deterrent capacity is robust should focus on an issue that is right in the backyard. Mr Subrahmanyam points out that “a continuity in respect of succession in both political and military commands” is the “most effective way of ensuring that the adversary will not succeed in his objective in carrying out such a decapitating strike.” Why is there no pressure on the UPA government to come clear on the lines of nuclear succession?