Next, a series of thermonuclear tests

By Bharat Karnad, July 2000

Securing a fusion clout is imperative because once this decisive technology is mastered, versatile weapons (gravity and glide bombs, warheads atop ballistic and cruise missiles) with yields ranging from megatonne to subkiloton can be secured by altering the size of the thermonuclear fuel package.

This is important because the level of deterrence achieved is the function both of the magnitude and quality of promised destruction.

Once even the most powerful nuclear weapons states have their perspectives thus tempered, India's role in configuring an international nuclear order attentive to its concerns will naturally follow along with collateral political gains.

But there is no progress in this respect and the Indian military as the end-user are understandably worried. Their alarm is due to the fact that of the six nuclear tests conducted to-date, only one involved a fully assembled, ready-to-use, weapon and that too of the old, fission type. Further, its experience of computer designed and performance-simulated weapons systems that the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DR&DO) has produced over the years, has not inspired confidence. Owing to the consistent failures of a host of indigenously developed missile systems, for instance, which have the range and accuracy but only on the computer screen, the Armed Forces are frightened by the prospect of having to handle nuclear weapons systems that have never been physically tested and whose real yield and other performance parameters are a matter of conjecture and doubt. This apprehension has reportedly been communicated to the Government, but what has come out of the loop is a declaration by the Defence Minister, George Fernandes, that far from thinking about testing, it is only a matter of time before New Delhi signs the CTBT!

While an Indian nuclear force and its potential handlers are thus stuck in Never-Never Land, the Pakistanis are racing ahead to put their deterrent in place. Based on extensive Chinese test data base, the nuclear weapons in their employ are certified systems, and need no validation by testing, unlike their Indian counterparts which desperately do. This knowledge may be the reason for Islamabad's consistent show of nuclear bravado.

A credible nuclear deterrent that preserves India's strategic independence or, to use the official phrase `strategic autonomy', has to have an all-azimuth orientation and a meaningful force strength of roughly 500 weapons/warheads (the level of China, UK and France). Because of advances in precision munitions conventional and nuclear and real-time terminal guidance, the concept of a small, essentially retaliatory, force means risking its early elimination by surgical strikes. Prudence demands the jettisoning of the idea of small numbers of low-end, low value, weapons of small yield and with smaller reach, which the Indian Government seems to be fixated on.

The greatest urgency, however, lies with getting on with the job of building the deterrent. An open-ended series of neutron and thermonuclear tests has to be carried out. This programme of testing should be complemented with the repeated test firing of long range missiles. The 2,000 km range Agni missile, last launched many years ago, and its extended range kin, have to get out of computers and on to traversing designated ballistic or terrain hugging (cruise) paths in the real world.

Equally urgently, a stage has to be taken out from the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle plan-form and repeatedly flown as an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), perhaps, into the open, relatively uninhabited, waters of the southern Indian Ocean. Improving accuracy is a gradual process, but initially the large CEP (circular error probable) of Indian missiles at 10,000 km plus or extreme range will be compensated by the megatonne destructive power of thermonuclear warheads. The Hydrogen weapon deterrent will, in the event, work in generating political benefits as soon as it is installed.

The time for the resumption of nuclear and missile testing is now. The existing nuclear order is falling apart at the seams. The 187 signatory states of the Non-Proliferation Treaty have realised that they have been had but showed no stomach for a fight even though the P5, at the just concluded Review Conference in New York, firmly rejected meaningful progress towards disarmament. Russia's gesture of ratifying the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) II agreement to bring weapons down to the 3,500-level, has not disinclined the US from unilaterally scrapping the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Nor has Moscow's threat to withdraw from the START I and II accords made any difference. The United States is giving the lead in seeking absolute security. If it is each country for itself then an `India First emphasis of policy becomes an urgent necessity. Indian nuclear policy has to revolve around several questions: What will serve the immediate national interests in the present and in the foreseeable future (meaning, 5-10 year time frame)? What nuclear force will prove to be the most effective deterrent against major threats? What force quality and composition will enlarge India's politico-military options? What policy will increase the country's international bargaining power and role? New Delhi needs to display hard-headedness.