The author Dr. K Santhanam is on the Core Group of SASFOR TM . Worked as a physicist who worked in BARC for 15 years. He received advanced training at the International Institute for Nuclear Science and Engineering in the Argonne National Laboratory, Lemont, Illinois. Later, he was Science Adviser in the Ministry of External Affairs and Chief Adviser in the Defence R&D Organisation. He was also Director General, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
Programme Coordinator, Pokhran II
The aims of this article are:
1] To correct the inaccuracies in the articles on Pokhran II published in the August 28 and August 30 2009 issues of The Hindu;
2] To bring out and substantiate the basis of my statement that the yield of the thermonuclear tested in May 1998 was below the claimed figure and design expectations.
It should first be noted that all the five nuclear tests conducted in May 1998 were through a joint BARC - DRDO team. The DRDO team was assigned the full and critical responsibility of designing, building, clearing, commissioning, operation and maintenance of field instrumentation at the Pokhran test site for recording seismic data from all the tests. The measured data is vital in estimating the yield and help refine theoretical calculations. The instrumentation included seismic and advanced fibre-optic sensors which were placed at a large number of points in the adits of the shafts where the devices were placed and to a radius of about 2.5 km from the axis of the shafts. The entire range of sensors and recorders fully international standards class in terms of accuracy and reliability; and, so acknowledged by BARC .as well.
the Vajpayee government' (clearly Shri. Brajesh Mishra, the then National Security Adviser) that I was not privy to the actual weapon designs which are highly classified' is totally incorrect.
The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) also conducted a very large number of experiments of the High Explosive (HE) Trigger of our nuclear weapons. Indeed, this trigger is of DRDO design This work of DRDO led to a considerable reduction in the size and weight of our nuclear arsenal.
This recital would it amply clear that DRDO had full access to all measurements of the yields from the articles tested. It also developed the HE trigger of our nuclear weapons. Hence, statements in The Hindu article which cast a doubt on instrumentation are totally off the mark; and the remark that DRDO did not have a clue about the core design and composition is completely inaccurate.
DRDO produced a comprehensive, classified report which carried the readings from the instruments and compared them with the values predicted by BARC. It also contained positive suggestions on what more needs to be done to confer sufficient 'credibility' on India's Minimum Credible Deterrent (MCD).
DRDO's report was discussed in a meeting some time in late 1998 convened by Shri Brajesh Mishra, National Security Adviser (NSA). It was attended by military brass at the Chief or Deputy Chief level. DRDO and BARC stuck to their respective positions.
A 'voice vote' of sorts was taken by the NSA. This is quite unusual because this is a matter of very high technical complexity and the Services were ill-equipped to give an opinion in this regard. The NSA said that the government would stand by the opinion of BARC and closed the meeting.
Another argument advanced by BARC is that the rock strata in Pokhran was unique and different from other test sites in the world. However, it is relevant to point out that there is sufficient published information on this matter. Further, DRDO utilized the same published information used by BARC in its own calculations of the yield. As such, this BARC argument is also very hollow.
Lessons from the Thermonuclear Test
In technically complex matters like nuclear weapon testing where a genuine difference of opinion occurs among science establishments, the proper course would be to form an independent group of retired stalwarts. It could be empowered to access all relevant technical information and submit a classified report to government.
Nuclear history clearly reveals that no country has succeeded in its first thermonuclear test. This is true of the Big Boys, USA and USSR. We need not wring our hands in despair; but we should continue truthfully with our R&D programme; and involve retired and recognized nuclear professionals in the review process to enhance credibility.
Computerised modeling and simulation should, of course, be pursued.
But this is, basically, an abstraction of the reality. A menu is, after all, not a meal. It cannot replace full-scale testing because such exercises are fundamentally theoretical. Hence, sufficient, credible measurements are needed to validate theory, especially in items like coefficients in the Equation of State of plutonium (or uranium) under conditions of high temperature and pressure. Obviously, there is a clear and urgent need to do more honest home work on our thermonuclear design.
There is also a strong need to periodically monitor progress posted in our nuclear designs, especially in miniaturization to be compatible with the payload weight and volume of long-range Agni variants and our nuclear SLBMs which are in the stage of development.
It would be utterly laughable if the long range Agni missile is to carry a 20 kT fission bomb or a thermonuclear device with a highly suspect yield to inflict 'unacceptable damage' in the second-strike mode as part of our declared doctrine of 'No First Use (NFU). This doctrine, also, needs a very urgent re-visit leading to an early withdrawal. The withdrawal pains will not be so severe as made out in some circles.
Further, we have to vehemently denounce the existence and operation of 'holy cows'. We have to espouse and defend the scientific truth at all costs; more so when it has a fundamental bearing on our national security interests. It is only in the domain of religions that a 'gospel truth' is propagated; and, the word of the Lord (or his representatives on earth) get echoed in 'revelations' or 'visions' of holy men.
There could be 'scientific claims' on an event or a phenomenon.
But they will have to stand the test of independent scrutiny by qualified scientists and engineers. Many 'scientists' who deviated from this straight and narrow path may have had a brief period in the limelight. Thereafter, they have been unceremoniously dumped in the dustbin of history.
I also believe that the structure and membership of the present National Security Advisory Board and the National Security Council are not appropriate enough to meaningfully analyse nuclear security matters. At present, both report to the National Security Adviser.
If the points mentioned above are effectively, efficiently and immediately implemented, there will be a quantum jump in the development of a credible thermonuclear deterrent for India.
Firstly, the remarks I made at the IDSA seminar are scientifically valid and appropriate for a re-examination of India's position on the CTBT.
Secondly, the concept of 'holy cows' in our S&T establishments needs to be thoroughly denounced.
Thirdly, it would be toxic if not fatal to assume that the masses and the politicians of India are not interested in India's nuclear capability or other high technology projects. They may not be tutored in science and technology. But they possess robust common sense and a feeling for national security which have influenced many major national decisions in the past.
Fourthly, recourse by scientists to fallacies in logic like Special Pleading need to be detected early and demolished.
Fifthly, it is completely false to say that DRDO's instrumentation was 'faulty'. It was not.
Finally, I am rather happy that a debate on CTBT and its implications for India have entered the public domain. This is a healthy development.
The author would like to gratefully acknowledge the invaluable insights and indefatigable attention to detail of Prof Ashok Parthasarthy which were indispensable in crystallizing my refining thoughts. Thanks are also due to the very large number of former colleagues who persuaded me to publish this article without delay in the national interest.