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A Critical Look at India's Nuclear Critics


After India exploded 5 nuclear devices, a lively debate has been started in India (and elsewhere) on issues like nuclear testing, CTBT, economic consequences etc. However, after weeks of incessant talk shows and columns on these topics, it is becoming apparent that the debate is being led by technically uninformed loud mouths whose sole qualification may be `peace activist' or `environmental crusader'. Even the tag `scientist' is meaningless if he/she doesn't know the technical details of CTBT, NPT, subcritical tests or fourth generation nukes. Worse, the political personalities are not technically well informed enough to counter this set and sometimes even second their opinions if it suits them politically. After the Pakistan tests, decibel levels shot up further.

While this reflects very well on the freedom of expression enjoyed in our society, it does place a certain responsibility on those better informed to raise the level of public awareness.

A regular feature of most debates seem to be a set of rhetorical questions whose answers are taken to be evident. Sadly, they are evident one way for the unwary and another way for the well informed, and therein lies the danger. Just as a lie if repeated often may become the truth, a falsehood not contradicted long enough may also become the truth. This article is an attempt to answer some of these questions. The first part is structured as Question-Answer. Inevitably, some answers need to address fairly technical issues or require elaboration. In order to maintain continuity, these technical issues/elaborations have been clubbed together under `Part-II Technical Issues'. The Question-Answer section contains many references to this section (as [See This Topic]) but the reader may skip them on the first pass. The issues discussed here are more technical rather than political / social. The author believes that only after the technical nuances have been mastered can the latter issues be meaningfully dealt with.

Part-I Frequently Asked Rhetorical Questions

Questions: Why now? What has changed so dramatically? Why not wait longer? Implied Ans: We could have waited forever. We tested because we are crazy.
Real Answer: First of all it must be appreciated that there does not always have to be a single reason for everything. In this case, there were at least two.
  1. Security issue: (a)Pakistan - Its ability to hit deep into India is certainly a new dramatic development. (b)China - Here the change has been more gradual. Given their continued testing since 1964, they have been improving their nukes. The gap between India and China has been widening steadily. At some point a correction had to be applied. The fact that we have survived so far is no reason not to test, but a reason not to push our luck any further. After all, if we live to be 35 years old we do not say, "Hey! I've survived so far, so why get life insurance now?". [See China and its Neighbors]
  2. CTBT issue:
    1. What will CTBT do?
      CTBT aims to ban certain types of nuclear tests, while allowing certain other types [See CTBT: technical specs]. Significantly, but NOT coincidentally, it means that if you have conducted enough tests already, you can keep making more and better n-bombs but if you have not done any tests so far then you can never make a USEFUL bomb. [See US and CTBT]
    2. But did we not refuse to sign it in 1996 Geneva? So why not continue with our policy of `option is open'?
      At the time of the Geneva conference it was stated that the conference will have to UNANIMOUSLY agree to the CTBT draft and that CTBT would come into force if all 44 countries with nuclear (weapons or reactor) technology ratify it. Subsequent developments [See CTBT and UN] indicate that CTBT may have been enforced without unanimous approval, possibly by a General Assembly vote in 1999. Instead of just *US aid* sanctions, we could then face *UN trade* sanctions like Iraq, if we ever had to test post UN CTBT enactment.
    3. Why is it not mentioned?
      This is a major reason for testing now, but is understated in public for two reasons: (1) It means taking on the Big-5 rather than little Pakistan and (2) It requires making very technical rather than emotional arguments and consequently requires significantly more (long term) effort. But if we scientists want India to be a nuclear power, we MUST put in that effort towards educating our public and politicians.
    Note that after an initial phase of Pak bashing, India has finally stated unambiguously that Pak alone was not the reason for invoking the N option. The basic asymmetry and long term dangers inherent in NPT and CTBT would have made these tests necessary, with or without a nuclear Pakistan.

  3. The Latency Period:
    Frankly, one must question the sanity and awareness level of those who keep asking ``What was the immediate threat?'' What exactly is their perception of nuclear deterrence? Test a device today, drop it on someone tomorrow? To go from a tested device to a functional deterrence took many years even for first world nations. Even our own Home grown nuclear critics ( e.g. Retd. Adm Ramdas) have stressed that with our finances and industrial capacity, it will take years to actually have a nuclear deterrence based on planes/missiles/subs along with a command/control structure. The relevant question, therefore, is ``Are we likely to need a sophisticated nuclear deterrence 10-15 yrs from now?'' Given the fluidity of the New World Order, no one can confidently say `No'. The best course of action, then, is to get started now on developing the required technologies so that we can take appropriate steps later should events warrant. In sum, the arguement against the blasts is:
    1. There is no immediate threat. [Pause. Wait for the govt to list immediate threats. Then say...]
    2. It will take a long time to translate these tests into deployed weapons, so how have we met the `immediate threats'? When people are so desparate as to use a proposition and its converse to prove the same point, it is a sure sign that they are concealing their true motives. One suspects that our liberal intellectuals have a hidden agenda in embarassing a political party that they have repeatedly accused of having a hidden agenda.
Questions: What have we achieved by these tests? Hadn't we already proved ourselves in 1974? Are we any safer now?
Implied Answer: Nothing but trouble. Yes. No.
Real Answer: What we achieved now (that we hadn't in '74)
  1. We have demonstrated that we have Usable n-devices. A device too heavy for us to transport out of our country would not deter anyone!
  2. Over the years, the role of tests have changed dramatically. It used to be that a test verified a bomb design. Subsequently, tests were conducted to verify design tools for making n-bombs, i.e., tests have gone from being consumer goods to capital goods!! This calls for a drastic re-evaluation of our old concepts. The cost we are paying for the tests is not for 5 bombs but our *ability* to make them in future. Consequently, if we had not tested before Sept 1999 [See CTBT and UN], then we would have committed all our future generations to enforced nuclear disarmament in a world full of nuclear weapons/threats (See question on disarmament). Surely a nation that has watched Mahabharat should realize the danger of making such tall promises/commitments on behalf of future generations & situations!
The safety factor
  1. Arms race: See the question on peace and arms race below.
  2. Deterrence: It is well said that the generals (and the public) are always preparing for the last war. (Not last as in Armageddon, but last as in the most recent one!) This is evident even now during our debates which are fixated on the utility/futility of the H-bomb. Yes, the H bomb is seldom an option. From this the unsuspecting pacifists concluded that n-bombs are useless. The NATO/US generals, unfortunately, concluded otherwise. They simply demanded smaller, and hence more usable, n-bombs. The nuclear threat in future will not be that Calcutta may get wiped out but that our armored corps may get wiped out by a few nuclear artillery shells. Not only is this scenario more likely, it is utterly lacking in the `world will stand by us' safety factor. No civilian casualties, limited battlefield radiation. Certainly not a `crime against humanity' which would bother the international community beyond expressing grave concern.

    In the recent tests we have shown that we are also in the reckoning for these `designer nukes'. This deterrence was UTTERLY lacking in the '74 test. In layman terms, making these small bombs is more difficult than making big bombs just as making a wristwatch TV is than a 14in TV. [See Types of Nukes]

  3. India-Pak: The international loud mouths would have you believe that deterrence requires rationality and does not apply to Indo-Pak. The reality is starkly, and awkwardly, different. Within days of both India and Pakistan going nuclear, the following doctrines emerged:
    1. India will not use a first strike and
    2. Pakistan reserves the right to first strike and will exercise it if any of their cities is about to fall. Both doctrines are reasonable and SAFE. There is no talk of launching an all out attack if satellites/radars detect a launch from the other side, the kind of error prone hair-trigger deterrence practised by the `rational' powers. Given Pak deterrence, Indians can stop dreaming about crossing over with massed tanks and besieging Lahore. Given Indian depth and range, Pak can forget about getting away with a first strike. So now we can return to our low intensity conflicts without the threat of escalation. The real incentive to solve the Kashmir issue comes not from the threat of nuclear war but precisely because such open warfare is now ruled out as a solution.

Question: Hasn't India destroyed NPT/CTBT and drive towards N disarmament? Can disarmament take place now?
Implied answer: It has, and for that we should be ashamed. Little hope for disarmament now, thanks to India
Real Answer: Yes, we did deal a body blow to NPT and CTBT. And that is all. We have not dealt a body blow to disarmament because it was never there to begin with. What were NPT and CTBT trying to achieve? They were eliminating hypothetical nuclear weapons only - the few crude devices that `rogue' states may have produced. In return for this, NPT gave legitimacy to the 5 nuclear weapons states (NWS) to stay nuclear forever. That means [See Number of Nukes] NPT legitimized over 35,000 *actual* nuclear warheads while eliminating a hundred *hypothetical* warheads. CTBT was even worse. It was aimed at letting these same NWS develop `fourth generation' warheads, which are far more USABLE [See Types of Nukes] and in return it would have eliminated the same phantom warheads as NPT. NPT and CTBT were instruments of surrender rather than treaties.

Does disarmament stand a chance now? I believe the answer is YES. More so now than before! Consider this: there were three types of weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, chemical and biological. The world quickly agreed to ban the last two and concrete steps have been taken in that direction. So why not nuclear? All the talk of `verification reliability' applies to all three types, so that can't be the real reason. I believe the real reason was the perception that ANYBODY could make chemical / biological bombs. They were low technology (poor man's nuke, they called it) options that gave no advantage to the big guys. So they were banned. Nukes were different. Did their development not require a galaxy of brilliant people like Oppenhiemer, Feynman, Teller? That hi-tech image has stuck, along with the associated perceived strategic advantage. The US has openly stated that the utility of CTBT to US lies in CTBT's ability to freeze that advantage [See US and CTBT]. Given the license to N arms ALREADY granted by NPT to the Big-5, if CTBT was allowed to also assure a monopoly then there would have been absolutely no incentive to disarm. SALT treaties would reduce the bloated stocks for US and Russia, but no NWS has ever committed to total elimination. Now, with India forcing the NWS to face a world sans CTBT-assured nuclear monopoly, their assessment might change. An advantage based on sophisticated (and costly) convention weapons may be deemed more sustainable than nukes if nukes are perceived as giving too many `small' countries a viable deterrence. This won't assure peace, but for what its worth, the world may be rid of nukes.

Questions: Won't these tests start an arms race and hamper peace in the region?
Implied answer: Of course they will. There goes the neighborhood!
Real Answer: Just because it is said on BBC/CNN, it doesn't have to be true.

  1. Arms race: This term has come to be used indiscriminately. An actual `arms race' can only be sustained between equals. This has happened only once in the nuclear sense, between US & USSR. They both wanted PARITY, never trusted the other and kept racing. It was the desire for PARITY that made the balance unstable till such time as one collapsed out of fatigue. Consider, however, the other nuclear linkages. USSR-UK:France, USSR-China and our own China-India. All these relationships were so asymmetric that the issue was DETERRENCE, not parity; and deterrence does admit stable solutions [See Number of Nukes]. The trouble with this stable order began with Pakistan having a (pre-tested) n-device. Now there was a possible parity with India, ergo there was scope for nuclear/conventional race.

    By testing 5 devices of increasing complexity, India has in one stroke restored the asymmetry. Pakistan matched us numerically for show, but not technically or in terms of infrastructure. So we will have a stable asymmetric chain once again, albeit with one more link to it: Russia-China-India-Pakistan. Moreover, the stability of this configuration will be guaranteed by the size and technical sophistication of the underlying economies, a far more dependable anchor than international goodwill.

  2. Peace: This will neither help nor hurt the peace prospects. Peace requires a change of mind set, not technology level. Most people easily confuse the means of warfare with the need for warfare and think that peace can be achieved by technological deprivation. Try telling that to Rwandans. Using guns, pistols and usually just machetes, they managed to kill more than 200,000 (Washing- ton Post, 19/5/94) while Hiroshima casualties were estimated at 130,000 (N.Y.Times, 6/8/94: After 40yrs, A Bell Tolls). On the other hand UK and France have been nuclear neighbors and yet enjoyed mutual peace.

Questions: Can we afford nuclear arms? Shouldn't we be spending on food & housing?
Implied Answer: No, nukes are a rich man's toy.
Real Answer: Not so fast, my politically correct friend!

  1. The cost of nukes: This is where one needs to distinguish between the needs of a genuine n-arms race and a stable asymmetric deterrent. The cost of a n-arms race is, of course, open ended and prohibitive. The loser goes bankrupt and the winner goes into debt. However, it is not clear what the `nuclear' part has to do with it. The same sorry results can be guaranteed with jets/tanks/carriers. Like paying $600,000,000 for 28 F16's sitting in Arizona. It would appear that so long as there is a `race', its bad news.

    So we come now to the cost of maintaining asymmetric nuclear deterrence. It turns out that if one does have a big enemy, then it is cheaper to use a nuclear deterrence than a conventional one. This conclusion was arrived at by Trueman (President) and Dean Acheson (Sec of State) in '51. [See Bang for the Buck]. The US is rich, but rest assured they count their pennies. (Where their projections went haywire is in failing to stop at deterrence and sliding into a race.) So now we have the worlds richest nation

    1. using nukes because it cannot afford the alternatives and
    2. urging poorer countries not to use nukes.

    The lesson to be learned from US-USSR is that we SHOULD seek a nuclear deterrence w.r.t. China but NOT seek parity. And if Pakistan tries for parity rather than deterrence, its their economic funeral - not ours. No economy 1/7th our size can sustain parity with us in the long run.

  2. Economic sanctions: As mentioned before, these are all *aid* sanctions, not trade sanctions. Even for these cosmetic acts, there was no consensus among G-8 countries. Since the impact (or lack thereof) of these sanctions will play itself out on the world stage, history itself will make clear the `price' India has paid for the N tests. Not signing CTBT may have attracted similar sanctions [See CTBT and UN].
  3. Nukes vs social spending: In order to make this case, one would have to substantiate a number of other claims first. Detailed budget figures are hard to get but one must have certain standards in deductive reasoning.
    1. It would need to be shown that the dominant reason for our underdevelopment is lack of funds rather than mismanagement. This is a tall order, given that we have had growth spurts whenever we have had an organizational shake-up: commencement of 5 year plans, the emergency, the Rajiv Gandhi liberalisation and the Rao-Manmohan reforms. In each case, it was the growth that subsequently triggered an increase in foreign investments, never the other way around!
    2. The sums involved must make sense, i.e., it should not be that money saved by cutting our entire nuclear weapons program increases our social sector spending by a fraction. Right now we spend 3% of our GDP on defense. The bulk of even that 3% goes into salaries. If delaying our nuclear prog. by 5 yrs would ensure that by 2003 we would be rich (or at least without poverty), it would have been worth it. Consider, however, that we have already delayed it by 25 yrs and we are still not rich - just poor and non-nuclear.
    3. One must be consistent in applying this argument. ALL `non-essential' expenditure must be likewise cut. For e.g., tenured positions for talking heads, all of arts and culture, astronomy, pure science, exotic accelerators, all leisure activity, foreign trips, boutiques, fashions...

All things being equal, one should pay more attention to economic development rather than defence. This, however, assumes two things.
  1. minimum current defence requirements have been taken care of and
  2. changes to defence needs can be met as and when necessary. Our present troubles arise because of (ii).
With NPT, CTBT and FMCT regimes, we are faced with an immediate deadline for developing our defences. So far, thankfully, there have been no attempts to place a cut off date for economic development. We can get nuclear today and rich tomorrow but not rich today and nuclear tomorrow. If we want a future for India where she is well off and strong, then the present exercise of N option was inevitable.

PART II: Technical Details, Elaborations and References

Types of Nukes:

Since large bombs are an overkill in most cases, the drive has been towards smaller bombs of less yield. Boosted fission devices and other "fourth generation" bombs are the result. A source of fast neutrons, other than the nuclear fuel itself, is used to cause fission in the nuclear fuel [See CTBT: technical specs]. The high yield bombs served two purposes.
  1. It enabled one to threaten mass destruction of the enemy
  2. It enabled one to use missiles with large terminal errors. Even if the missile missed by 5 miles it was OK, since anything within 10 miles would be wiped out any way. Those who now look down on some states for following the first doctrine conveniently forget that they would have achieved just the same effect even while fighting a `propah, military targets only' war by the second doctrine.

Now that missiles have become MUCH more accurate, low yield devices can be used with them. This will reduce the political fallout and mass destruction of civilians. This now gives NWS the option of using nuclear weapons in Third World conflicts.