Former Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) scientist K. Santhanam’s assertion that the thermonuclear device tested in May 1998 was a fizzle is a bombshell of sorts. Besides having direct implications for India’s policy on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the revelation reopened the debate on the credibility of India’s purported minimum nuclear deterrent—a question that has lingered during the past decade.
After a year of smarting from the purported gains of the nuclear deal, the government is now beginning to sense its fallouts, some of which dominated the polemics in the run-up to the deal. Dominating the debate then were the virtues of securing India’s nuclear testing rights. While Indian negotiators managed to avert any reference to nuclear testing as a cause for the deal’s termination in the 123 Agreement, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also had to convince some disgruntled seniors in the nuclear establishment that India’s inherent right to conduct future explosive testing will be secured. Apparently, not many believe such opportunities exist. For it is clear that India’s initiation of nuclear testing will come with huge political costs, despite the leeway promised by article 14 of the 123 Agreement.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Article 14 talks of two broad scenarios, which could justify an Indian action that could lead to the termination of deal. They include a “changed security environment or a response to similar actions by other states which impact national security”. By normal interpretations, a “changed security environment” could mean a military aggression by China or Pakistan, and “similar actions” could be the initiation of nuclear testing by any adversary, which could trigger an Indian response. Definitely so, an Indian nuclear test could only be tolerated if there is precedence being set in the region by another country. An Indian test prompted by domestic demand, without externally forced compulsions, could consequently invite global censure and potentially lead to termination of the nuclear deal, along with ramifications at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
Despite this widely held realization, why did Santhanam call for fresh testing? More than applying pressure on the government to reconsider testing options, Santhanam corroborated a decade-long perception, passionately highlighted by some analysts and scientists, that India’s nuclear deterrent lacks the assumed credibility. The other puzzle was the nuclear establishment’s capability for subcritical testing and laboratory simulations for future augmentations without explosive testing. By pointing to insufficient results from the thermonuclear test, Santhanam highlighted the need for more testing and data collation for future improvisations. It’s quite hard to ignore his affirmation that no nuclear weapon state (NWS) has developed hydrogen bombs with a single test.
Such intricacies aside, India is trammelled in a self-inflicted quandary on nuclear test ban. Like other key non-proliferation instruments, India had pioneered the call to ban nuclear testing and co-sponsored the resolution to formulate CTBT. However, at the negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament (CD), India resisted the treaty as it lacked commitments by the weapon states for a time-bound disarmament plan, even while constraining others such as India from testing. This meant NWSs could sustain their arsenals and secure their right for improvisations, thus negating the spirit of CTBT as a stepping stone towards disarmament. With the Chinese arsenal lurking at its back, India had no option then but to reject the treaty in 1996.
Unlike in 1996, India now feels the pinch of the test ban on its strategic programme, and cannot accede to the treaty unless convinced of the credibility of its deterrent and capability for upgrades without testing. Similarly, India had argued in 1996 that a discriminatory CTBT will widen the disparity between nuclear “haves” and “have-nots”. As a weapon state, India could no longer crusade for the have-nots. If India accedes to CTBT without any structural changes from its 1996 position, India will be discarding its long-held position on disarmament.
While Santhanam’s revelation might be a red herring on CTBT, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) will now have to frame fresh excuses to block the treaty while keeping hopes on the US military to derail its ratification. Though the US military is not openly lobbying to retain testing rights, neither is it playing pied piper to Obama’s nuclear-free world vision. The reported proposal to revive the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) programme embodies the US military’s sentiments. Though testing is not critical in the RRW plan, the fact that new warheads will be built erodes Obama’s disarmament vision and negates CTBT’s central assumption that weapon-states will not develop new weapons, contributing to a disarmament process.
A harbinger of things in store was given by two recent reports on US strategic posture, commissioned by the Pentagon and the US Congress. Both recommended that the US retain its nuclear edge through a safe and secure nuclear stockpile and push for effective deterrence. Critics believe such momentum and a call for RRW’s revival may lead to a proactive nuclear posture review later this year, through which the US military could eventually stall the CTBT ratification. If this does not happen, the Santhanam bombshell might prove to be a blessing in disguise.
A. Vinod Kumar is an associate fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Views are personal. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org