It was on May 11, 1998 precisely 19 years ago India detonated three nuclear devices in Pokhran, Rajasthan. Operation Shakti as it was code named ended on May 13, 1998 after the detonation of two more atomic devices, thus bringing the total number of nuclear tests in 1998 to five and six overall including the peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974.
The three nuclear devices tested on May 11, 1998 were triggered simultaneously. The tests were conducted underground with a fission device, a low-yield device and a thermo nuclear device (or a fusion device). The yields claimed for these tests were 12 kiloton (kt) for the fission device, 0.2 kt for the low yield device and 43 kt for the thermo nuclear device. There were two more sub-kiloton tests carried out on May 13, 1998 with a yield of 0.5 kt and 0.3 kt.
A Draft Nuclear Doctrine (DND) was released in August 1999 and the official doctrine based on the DND was adopted in January 2003, though the full text was not made public.
However both the nuclear tests and the nuclear doctrine are mired and marred in controversies, ambiguities, false claims and deliberate downplaying of scientific facts and figures. The public have been successfully kept away from the reality. The veil of secrecy, rather ultra secrecy, continues to suppress facts, reality and the actual status of our preparedness from a nuclear weapons perspective.
Nuclear Weapons Tests – A dud?
As mentioned before the total number of tests during Operation Shakti stood at five which consisted of a thermo nuclear or a fusion device commonly referred to as a hydrogen bomb. It is this test which has made news for all the wrong reasons across the scientific community and the reasoning put forth is hard to dismiss but at the same length gives an opportunity for transparency and clarity.
Within no time after the tests the western scientists based on seismic monitoring readings were quick to point out that the Indian claim on the yield generated out of the thermo nuclear test was wrong and put the yield at a much lower value. While the Indian scientists claimed 43 kt as the yield for the thermo nuclear device the western counterparts placed the yield at as low as 1/3rd times the Indian claim, at about 13 kt – 14 kt. Various explanations and counter explanations flew thick and fast.
The total combined yield claimed by Indian scientists as mentioned before stood at approximately 55.2 kt + 3 kt. An earliest article by Sri Raj Chengappa on this subject in the India Today magazine issue dated 12th October 1998 quoting Terry Wallace, Professor of Geophysics at the University of Arizona and the author of “Science” report went on to say that India’s thermo nuclear test was a dud.
In the paper titled “What are the Real Yields of India’s Test” by Carey Sublette there is a question mark on the May 13, 1998 tests itself where India claimed it detonated two sub-kiloton devices. According to the before mentioned paper no seismic station outside India has reported any evidence of tests on May 13, 1998.
Further the paper also disproves all the calculations, theories and methodologies used by Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and Indian scientists to counter the western claim and also conclude that the Indian claims on the yield generated by the Shakti series of tests are highly exaggerated.
Interestingly in his book “Weapons of Peace” author Sri Raj Chengappa quotes Sri P K Iyengar, the former Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), as doubting the success of the thermo nuclear test. In his paper “Nuclear Nuances” Sri P K Iyengar, the form AEC Chairman himself concludes that the yield of the thermo nuclear test was very low and that this device burnt only partially.
However the final nail in the coffin was the revelation by none other than Sri K Santhanam, former Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) Scientist and the Field Director during the Shakti series of nuclear tests at Pokhran. In an interview to Outlook India issue dated 5th October 2009 Sri K Santhanam confirmed what the outside world was opining. India’s hydrogen bomb test was a failure. According to him the DRDO’s instruments at the test site also showed that the yield of 43-45 kt for the hydrogen bomb was not achieved. In the interview Sri Santhanam also goes on to say that a classified report was submitted to the Government in 1998 itself but no action was initiated by then Government.
Exercising the right to information under the Right to Information Act, 2005, an application was filed with the BARC by this author on 16th April 2017 seeking information on the nuclear tests, the yields generated and the dispute on the yields claimed. The ‘information sought’ and the ‘information given’ is reproduced ‘as is’ hereunder:
Interpreting the ‘information given’ (refer above), the Government is non committal. If all the information available in the public domain is authentic it also means that the analysis of western scientists that the thermo nuclear tests were a dud, the revelations of Sri K Santhanam that the hydrogen bomb test were a failure and the conclusions of Sri P K Iyengar are also authentic. Further Sri Santhanam’s assertion that no action was initiated by the then Government on the classified report is also proven. This is bad news.
Further going by the sheer number of nuclear tests India has conducted so far – six in total – questions remain unanswered regarding the ability to have a credible nuclear arsenal. Add to this the controversies and the situation is not the one that gives the level of comfort such an issue of paramount importance demands. Just for the sake of academics the United States has tested 1054 times, Russia (formerly Soviet Union) 715 and China 45.
Nuclear Doctrine – Unclear?
On 4th January 2003 India adopted its nuclear doctrine at a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). The PIB press release in this regards spelt out the salient features though the entire doctrine was not made public. The salient features of this doctrine are:
- Building and maintaining a Credible Minimum Deterrent (CMD)
- No First Use of nuclear weapons. It will be used only for retaliation against a nuclear attack which will be massive to inflict unacceptable damage
- Retain the option of retaliation with nuclear weapons in the event of a major attach against India or its forces anywhere by biological or chemical weapons
- Nuclear retaliatory attacks to be authorized by civilian political leadership
The doctrine adapted has led to many a controversy too. To highlight a few:
- No First Use: The policy of no first use of nuclear weapons may have many advantages. The use of nuclear weapons is only for retaliating against a nuclear attack, as per the doctrine, which will be massive intended to inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy. This would naturally deter the enemy from using nuclear weapons against India. In turn this would also ensure that India need not have its nuclear forces on red alert which is considered risky. Moreover a policy of first use of nuclear weapons demands expensive nuclear weapons infrastructure which will thus be avoided having a no first use policy.
However critics like Sri. Bharat Karnad argue that the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons is only possible if the country’s nuclear forces can survive a first nuclear strike against it and also retain the ability to retaliate which is near impossible because of an incapable Indian bureaucratic system in managing emergencies like a nuclear strike.
- Credible Minimum Deterrence: This refers to the quantity of nuclear forces that we need to deter any nuclear first strike against us. According to the doctrine India’s aim is to have deterrence capability to inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy through the use of nuclear weapons in the event of a nuclear first strike.
This would mean that the retaliation should be massive and our nuclear forces essentially the nuclear triad of land based missiles, aircrafts and submarines armed with nuclear weapons survives the first strike to retaliate later.
This poses the essential question as to how much is credible.What is credible vis-à-vis Pakistan may not be so vis-à-vis China.
Imagine a hypothetical scenario of the use of nuclear weapons on India by China in battle field scenario over Arunachal Pradesh.Does India have the capability to inflict unacceptable damage on all of China’s strategic cities, that too with the background of a failed thermo nuclear test?
Further in a conventional warfare scenario with Pakistan if there were to be a tactical nuclear strike on India’s armed forces by Pakistan to prevent further Indian advances, will India retaliate massively as enunciated in the doctrine?International pressure will be huge not to do so.
Moreover there is no clarity on what it means by “unacceptable damage” and what constitutes a “massive” retaliation.These terminologies have an extremely wide and different types of meanings attributed to it depending on the scenarios in which it is intended to be used.
- Use of nuclear weapons in the event of attack against India or Indian Forces anywhere, by chemical or biological weapons: The existing doctrine dictates that in the event of a major attack against India or Indian Forces anywhere by chemical or biological weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons. This contradicts the no first use pledge.
Also does this mean that in the event of a chemical or biological weapons attack on Indian Forces by state sponsored terrorists, India will retaliate with nuclear weapons and risk nuclear escalation?
The objective of this write-up is not to undermine or cast a doubt on our military and scientific abilities. It is also not a fault finding mission. There is a huge amount of scientific data which cannot be dismissed. Mere rhetoric and jingoism should never be brought in military and scientific matters. The sole objective is to expect a transparent policy making and dissemination of right information regarding matters of national security and interest. After all it is the normal citizen of this country who will bear the brunt of any conflict.
- What Are the Real Yields of India's Test? http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/India/IndiaRealYields.html
- Is India’s Nuclear Deterrent Credible? Sri Shyam Saran at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi April 24, 2013
- Is India's H-bomb a dud? By Sri Raj Chengappa, India Today issue dated 12th October 1998 http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/researchbywesternscientistscontestindiasclaimsofsuccessfullytestinganhbomb/1/265076.html
- India’s Nuclear Doctrine Debate – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Rajesh Rajagopalan
- Nuclear Nuances: Credible deterrent through testing, Sri P K Iyengar http://www.saveindia.com/iyengar.htm
- Weapons of Peace: Sri Raj Chengappa published in the year 2000
- Nuclear weapons testing https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_weapons_testing
- Official Press Statements issued by Ministry of External Affairs sourced from http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/India/Indianofficial.txt
- PIB Press Releases sourced from http://pib.nic.in/archieve/lreleng/lyr2003/rjan2003/04012003/r040120033.html
- The Myth Bomber interview of Sri K Santhanam in the Outlook India dated 5th October 2009 http://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/themythbomber/262027
IDSA Policy Brief, Reviewing India’s Nuclear Doctrine, Ali Ahmed, 24th April 2009