Author : Manoj Joshi

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 27, 2020
Could a US nuclear test be a fortuitous opportunity for India?

A report last week in The Washington Post highlighting that the US government was considering the resumption of nuclear weapons tests could be good news for India. If the US breaks the informal ban that it has in place since its last test in September 1992, it provides India an opportunity to also follow suit, and confirm the design of its thermonuclear bomb, something it failed to do in 1998 tests. This remains a critical gap in India’s nuclear force posture.

Suspicions in the US that Russia and China may be breaching their commitments not to test have been around for the past two decades at least, with some of the issues related to the interpretation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in relation to hydronuclear and sub-critical testing.

But it is only now that the US has acted in a range of areas. The Trump Administration which terminated the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty last year and has also taken the decision to fabricate low-yield nuclear weapons also  believes that both Russia and China have been conducting very low-yield nuclear tests. The US itself does sub-critical tests with a zero yield, as required by the CTBT, which can test the components of a weapon. It also has a huge National Ignition Facility (NIF) that enables it to “maintain the reliability and safety of the US nuclear deterrent without full-scale testing.”

Though, officially, India claims that it has thermonuclear weapons, the reality is that the test conducted on May 11 1998 was a fizz. Not only was it not picked up by anyone else in the world, it was not even picked up by an Aviation Research Centre (ARC) facility in Karnal, near Delhi, which has been around since the 1960s to detect Chinese nuclear tests.

Thermonuclear weapons are a key element of India’s nuclear doctrine, which in essence, says that any attack on India will be met with “massive retaliation.” The Draft Nuclear Doctrine of August 1999 had declared that “any nuclear attack on India and its forces shall result in punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor.”

India’s official nuclear policy which came as a press statement of January 4, 2003 following a Cabinet Committee on Security discussion says that India would adopt a posture of “no first use” and that nuclear weapons would “only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere.” Further, that India’s retaliation to “a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.”

India’s commitment to “massive retaliation” received indirect confirmation in April 2013 through a speech of the convener of the National Security Advisory Board, Shyam Saran. In the remarks, clearly in response to the development of small tactical nuclear weapons by Pakistan, Saran reiterated that India would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but regardless of the size of the attack, India’s retaliation “will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on the adversary.”  The word “massive” has a context in nuclear strategy literature, and usually pertains to what are called “city busting” strikes, as against those that target military facilities.

The problem is that from the outset there have been question marks about whether or not the Indian thermonuclear test worked. There was considerable debate and discussion in the aftermath of the Pokhran II tests on this issue, with Department of Atomic Energy scientists claiming they had purposefully kept the yield of the device low so as not to damage nearby villages. After months of study, senior US nuclear intelligence analysts, however, concluded that the thermonuclear test was a failure.

In August 2009  K Santhanam, DRDO’s point man in the nuclear programme revealed that the test had indeed been a failure. At the time he was head of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), the Ministry of Defence think tank, and the remarks were made at an off-the-record meeting. But when the story hit the media, Santhanam took a diplomatic stance, arguing that no country had managed to get its thermonuclear weapons right in the first test. But later in an article with Ashok Parthasarthi he came out clearly with his stand that the test “actually failed”.

It turned out that the government was given a report by the DRDO, based on its instrumentation at the Pokhran site, confirming the fizzle. The other report was based on seismic readings provided by the ARC’s various facilities, including the one in Karnal, that had been set up to monitor Chinese nuclear tests. Santhanam’s view was backed by people like P K Iyengar, whose analysis of the tests indicated that the secondary of the thermonuclear device worked at just about 10 percent efficiency.

So, as Santhanam and Parthasarthi concluded, India’s nuclear weapons had been tested only to a yield of 25 kilotons, where the need of the doctrine was of weapons of 150-350 kilotons.

To come back to the US development, we could now be at an important juncture with regard to our flawed “credible minimum nuclear deterrent.” India needs to be prepared for a strategy to exploit any step the US may take to break the moratorium. Given the way the US works, it is more than likely that it will make one set of rules for itself, and another for India.

Equally, we will have to understand that any resumption of testing means the end of the Indo-US nuclear deal. That may not be such a great loss, now that we have seen that it has not quite worked the way it was intended to. In another set of circumstances, it could have damaged India-US relations. But things are rapidly changing and that may not happen.

The US itself is taking the lead in dynamiting a succession of arms control, as well as other multilateral agreements. It wants to now remake the world order on a different ‘plurilateral’, rather than multilateral framework. The US has torpedoed a number of arms control agreements with Russia, and walked away from a number of international agreements, the Paris Climate Change treaty, the Iran nuclear accord, UNESCO, the UN Human Rights Council and now it has got the WHO in its cross-hairs.  It has also virtually supported the annexation of Palestine by Israel. A second Trump term could well see a burial of the already dead CTBT, and, if we get lucky, even the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). We should be prepared for what could well be a dystopian future in which each country has to look out for itself.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

Read More +