US nuclear pundits feel the Indian establishment – political, scientific, or both in concert – may be lining up to conduct more nuclear tests to validate and improve the country’s arsenal before the Obama administration shuts the door on nuclear explosions.
”You bet he wants to test again,” said Henry Sokolski, Executive Director of the Washington DC-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, when asked about the remarks from a key Indian nuclear scientist suggesting India’s thermonuclear test was not up to mark. ”Imagine you are a nuclear weapons designer who has corrected the mistakes and ironed out the wrinkles. You would be crazy not to want to test again.”
”You have to look at the DNA of a weapons designer. They always want to make the weapons smaller, lighter, more powerful,” Sokolski added. ”If you blindfold them, tie their hands and leave them in the middle of a forest, they will still make their way to a test site.”
While Sokolski addressed the Indian motivations largely from the technology validation standpoint, Washington has long believed that geo-political objectives rather than scientific or technical metrics drives New Delhi’s nuclear weapons quest. The argument has gotten another boost following the remarks by a key Indian scientist, K.Santhanam, questioning the potency of India’s thermonuclear bomb.
While ”We told you so,” was pretty much the reaction in the US scientific and strategic community on the renewed controversy over the yield of the thermo-nuclear device in Shakti series of nuclear test arising from remarks by Santhanam, there is lingering suspicion here that the disclosure in politically driven. It’s rare for Indian scientists to break ranks on a sensitive national security issue.
Why would Santhanam go public, with such deliberation, on something that was commonly discussed and widely acknowledged in scientific circles, a decade after the questions first surfaced?
The answer, according to some nuclear pundits mulling on the issue on blogs: To ward off growing American pressure on India to sign various nuclear containment treaties and perhaps enable India to conduct one last series of tests to validate and improve its nuclear arsenal.
In scores of research papers and studies in the immediate weeks and months of the 1998 nuclear tests in Pokhran, US scientists repeatedly questioned the reported yield of the thermo-nuclear device, saying it was well below India’s claim of 43-45 kilotons. In fact, some scientists, notably Terry Wallace, then with the University of Arizona and now attached to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, put the combined yield of the three May 11 tests at as low as 10 to 15 kilotons.
Two other tests on May 13 involved sub-kiloton devices for tactical weapons, which US scientists doubted even took place. Even the six nuclear tests claimed by Pakistan were treated with derision, with US scientists saying only two of them involved nuclear devices.
”This is quite clearly a case where governments tested for a political reason rather than scientific reasons, so we have to be suspicious of what they say,” Wallace, the country’s top nuclear seismology expert, had said about the reported yields.
On Thursday, suspicion lingered in strategic circles that even Santhanam’s ”admission” was cloaked in politics, aimed primarily at warding off US pressure on New Delhi to sign CTBT, the long-sought treaty to ban nuclear tests, and making ground for a further series of tests. There is renewed energy in Washington under the Democratic dispensation to push forward with such nuclear containment treaties after the previous Bush administration put them on the backburner.
Some US nuclear gurus also believe any break-out test at this point will be detrimental to India, even if it is aimed at validating its thermo-nuclear device, or the so-called Hydrogen Bomb.
“An Indian test would be very toxic to cooperation it has just gained under the nuclear deal. It’s hard to see what India would gain,” said Gary Milholin Director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.
Ensuring a reliable thermonuclear bomb? Milholin scoffed at the idea. “There are people who say American nuclear bombs won’t work because we have not tested for so long,” he laughed. “I don’t think anyone would want to test that assumption.”
Similarly, he said, it would be risky for any country to count on India’s thermonuclear weapon to have a low yield.
“There are now ways other than testing to increase confidence,” Milholin added. “And I think India has enough computing power to do that.”