Rethinking India's Nuclear Doctrine: To Test Nuclear Weapons or Not To Test

Nuclear Doctrine
Revisit India's Nuclear Doctrine

Nuclear Doctrine – Current State

Rethinking on India’s Nuclear Doctrine is a stated objective in BJP manifesto released just before the recently held Parliamentary elections.  It states “The BJP will study India’s nuclear doctrine in detail, and revise and update it, to make nuclear doctrine relevant to challenges of current times and (BJP will) maintain a credible minimum nuclear deterrent that is in tune with changing geostatic realities.” Much earlier on 27th May 1998 soon after the Pokharan-II “Shakti”. Nuclear Test Series, the then Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee stated in the Parliament: “Subsequent to the nuclear tests Government has already stated that India will now observe a voluntary moratorium and refrain from conducting underground nuclear test explosions” Is it not now the time to re-examine the voluntary moratorium on all types of nuclear tests in laboratories, underground or otherwise?.

Nuclear Doctrine & Nuclear Testing

Nuclear testing is a basic technological requirement if any country wants to maintain a credible safe and effective deterrent nuclear policy. It is required for improving the nuclear devices to maximize the ratio of explosion yield to the weight of the fissile material used. Tests are also required to design the geometry of the nuclear devices so as to fit into new delivery vehicles. It must be remembered that since Pokharan-II tests in 1998 India has considerably advanced its missile technology. There are missiles capable of carrying low yield multiple warheads or massive yield thermonuclear assemblies. The Agni-VI, the latest one in Agni missile series is claimed to incorporate sophisticated electronics, better structural materials and is capable of carrying 3 ton payload with a range of 6000 kilometers. The nuclear devices ought to be designed and tested to withstand the velocity and vibrational stresses encountered in such delivery systems. Over and above and more importantly, nuclear tests are essential in assessing the aging of the fissile stockpile materials like Plutonium-239 and Uranium-235 that undergo natural decay affecting their weapon grade purity. The impurities adversely affect the weapon’s performance and ought to be monitored for credibility and safety of the stockpile.
It must also be remembered that the countries that have volunteered moratorium on nuclear testing or have signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), have already amassed data on all aspects of nuclear weaponry from the innumerable tests they had already conducted. For instance, the US has conducted 1032 tests using 1127 nuclear devices while the erstwhile Soviet Union used 980 devices in 727 tests. The French conducted 217 tests, the British 88 and the Chinese conducted 47 tests before declaring their intention to refrain from further tests voluntarily or agreeing to the CTBT In comparison, India has conducted just two tests with 6 devices (1 + 5) spanning over a period of 24 years (1974-98) out of which 3 tests were experimental in sub-kilo range, 2 full scale fission tests and one thermonuclear. It cannot be denied that the data on full scale tests in the archives of the above countries is vast and scientifically far more superior and reliable than the limited data in India’s 6 tests of three different types.
The question then arises.  Should India abandon its voluntary moratorium and conduct full scale standard tests to upgrade its nuclear weapons and maintain a safe and credible stockpile for effective deterrence? India has demonstrated its capability for such tests However, there are risks involved in this option. First and foremost, India may be isolated once again in the nuclear arena and the NSG (Nuclear Supplier Group) waiver may be withdrawn. India’s civil nuclear power programme may then suffer a serious set-back. In addition, several other non-nuclear commercial agreements including defense contracts which have been entered into between India and other countries particularly the US and other Western countries may also be adversely affected. But lastly, there may be serious attitudinal changes among the India’s neighbours like Pakistan and China leading to nuclear arms race in the region, very akin to the cold-war of the last century.
The modernization, credibility and reliance of nuclear devices may also be achieved to a large extent by non-explosive and semi-explosive nuclear tests. For instance, hydrodynamic tests conducted on non-fissile isotopes of Plutonium and Uranium subjected to high yield conventional explosives, give valuable information on the physico-chemical behaviour of their fissile counter-part isotopes that are used in actual nuclear explosions. Hydro-nuclear tests are another kind of test from which such information is obtained directly on the fissile materials by controlling the sustainability of the chain reaction at different yield levels. In Pokharan-II test series India conducted probably 3 such tests where the explosion was controlled to yield 0.2Kt, 0.3Kt and 0.5Kt of TNT. The data generated in such tests relate directly to the behavior of the fissile material under actual explosion conditions and also on the effects of such explosions on soil and rock movement. Such data are useful for computer simulation on the performance of devices planned at high explosive yields without actually achieving those yields in tests. The only question that remains to be answered is how far the data gathered from six Indian tests of three different types are scientifically reliable? Nevertheless, commenting on the three experimental low yield tests in Pokharan-II the Indian Government issued a statement “The tests have been carried out to generate additional data for improved computer simulation of designs and for attaining the capability to carry out sub-critical experiments, if considered necessary…”. Furthermore, in December 1998 the then Chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission stated boldly “Our results are very close to our expected yields. Which means our capability to control this multiplication factor has been totally proved.” It is a bold statement based on a small number of experiments. Should India conduct further tests to obtain scientifically reliable data?
India’s voluntary moratorium relates to conducting underground nuclear test explosions. Arundhati Ghose once the Indian Ambassador to Conference on Disarmament, in one of her addresses emphasized that India’s moratorium is de facto acceptance of the CTBT without signing and ratifying it. Withdrawing the moratorium by India would be very akin to and is effectively the same as provided under Art. IX (2) of the CTBT where any member State may withdraw from the Treaty “if it decides that extraordinary events related to the subject matter of this Treaty have jeopardized its supreme interests” Certainly, resumption of nuclear explosion tests by India may draw the ire of the world and entail the various risks mentioned above. It would be naïve to suggest that experimental tests with partial yields as conducted in Pokharan-II series can be carried out without being detected since the network of international Monitoring System of the CTBT is too extensive and efficient. There is also a possibility though limited, that the experimental hydronuclear test using the actual fissile material may accidentally result in full scale explosion unexpectedly. Would it not therefore be more pragmatic to go ahead openly?
There is yet another prudent and equally effective alternative of “sub-critical tests” that may be considered. In such tests the fissile material used is less than the critical mass. Hence no self-sustaining fission chain reaction occurs and that is why these are called “sub-critical” tests. In such tests conventional high explosives are employed to generate high pressures and temperatures that are applied to the nuclear weapon material. The configuration and quantities of explosives and nuclear materials are such that no nuclear explosion will take place. It is evident that the sub-critical tests cannot be placed in the category of nuclear “explosions”. These are thus permissible under the CTBT and ought to be exempt under India’s voluntary moratorium which relates to nuclear “explosions”.
The data generated in sub-critical tests when used in combination with the data collected on full scale explosion tests, provide a good and reliable base for computer simulations on development of more advanced and sophisticated nuclear devices. However the reliability of computer simulations greatly depends on the amount of data collected on a large number explosion tests. It is reported that the US has been conducting such tests since 1997 and its last underground sub-critical test “Pollux” being 27th in the series, was conducted on 5th December 2012 at Nevada National Security Site. In the background of over 1000 tests that US had conducted, the simulations would be highly reliable. The Russians have also been conducting sub-critical tests at Novaya Zemlya Test Site. It is believed that France and China are also contemplating sub-critical tests and having in their archives a vast amount of data from a large number of full scale tests (217 & 47 respectively), their computer simulations would be reasonably reliable. For reliable Indian simulations, the data collected from the small number of tests it has conducted may not be sufficient. In such a scenario, it would be worth critically assessing pros and cons of revisiting the Doctrine of NO FURTHER NUCLEAR TESTS and decide whether to collect scientifically more reliable data and thereby strengthen the confidence in the safety and reliability of India’s nuclear arsenal and public perception of having an effective nuclear deterrence.

Dr. B.B.Singh holds a Masters degree in physics from Lucknow University and a doctorate from Royal Military College of Science U.K. Amongst various other honours he is recipient of Swatantryaveer Savarkar Science Award, Jack Goldberg Award of the Oregon Health Sciences University, USA and Indian Society for Cancer Research & Communication Award. He also holds LL.M. degree from Mumbai University specializing in Intellectual Properties Law. He has actively written and debated for protecting country’s interests during the formative years of Patent law and Nuclear legislation. He is a member of several scientific and social organizations including Rotary Club and Masonic fraternities.

3 comments

  1. Thanks for rememberring.For safety,security, integrity of the Nation, and to heighten our prestige, standing among powers of the universe, we should contine our experiments in greater scale. Applicatiom among various fields like agriculture, power generation medicine etc. should continue in much larger scale. You will recall the Biology Group used to come out with various improved seeds for agriculture once upon a ‘time. Investment to these fields should increase manifold for enhanced research . While on the subject, I am also of the view that the present socalled merrit promotion scheme should undergo drastic changfes. Time bound promotion should be only toreral achievers and not based on number of years putin with CR gradings. Am also of the view that the administration should have more officers and certain number of data entry offficials and stenographers performing multifarious activities based on computer system. If implemented this will reduce the number of adm /accounts staff. Though not popular with the unions, all subsidiary activities lik gaardening, transport, cosmetic maintenance, catering etc., may be contracted out. Further comments will be sent shortly, as at present I a m going our for a week. With kin regards

  2. You are correct.
    With one TN test the success of which has been also disputed by Dr. K. Santhanam, it is desirable to conduct some further tests. One must remember that having conducted numerous full scale tests and having committed to CTBT, the US has resorted to sub-critical testing and has done 27 such tests since 1997, the last one being as recent as in December 2012. We have to ask ourselves on what grounds our scientists have repeatedly stated (The Hindu, Sept.24 2009) that we don’t need to do further tests. For a scientifically reliable prediction on simulation, we certainly need more actual data. With fission devices we may be comfortable since we have conducted in all 5 tests. But for an effective deterrence, TN appears to be a better choice. I may be wrong.

  3. I think we missed the bus in 1998 when more tests could have been conducted in the heat of the moment. I am not aware of subcritical tests, but it is virtually impossible to conduct a regular test in view of international reprecussions. Our economy today is tied up with a host of countries and and a test would spell economic doom. Unless ofcourse we are so strong that these reprecussions can be handled.

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