Blast from the Past – Things said and unsaid…..
Thanks to all of you who have shown interest in what this rambler has to say. I thought it best to collect my thoughts more cogently once again and the result is this post. It is but an alternate view point and expands on some of the ideas that I had expressed in the email. So please take it as such. I claim no expertise on technical aspects of neither thermo nuclear devices nor access to strategic thinkers. This is just my take on it by reading the straws in the wind.
Santhanam’s coming out in the open is very significant. Those who know the gentleman and his contributions to India’s nuclear capabilities will no doubt take his view very seriously. What he has laid out is more a case for why there is a need for more testing. It is not an indictment of the thermo-nuclear device that was exploded – not of its design, not of the capability to produce one. Why then the need for additional tests? Read his carefully nuanced position again, gentle readers, for it reveals certain clear nuances.
First, he has made his case based on international doubts on the thermo-nuclear capability of India. He has not commented on the correctness or otherwise of it.
Second, he has made this statement to make a point that India should not be signing up to any disarmament initiative such as CTBT without further tests. The logic he has placed is based on the case made by western naysayers of Indian capability. He has used their words and stance to make a case on why India should not sign up and indeed carry out more tests.
Third, more importantly, why has he said what he has said now? He was party to the assertion by the GOI that India had a thermo-nuclear device and that there were no further tests required. He was the test director. It was done under his watch. Even if the tests indicated that the design was flawed and the yield was not as expected, it was his responsibility to declare whether the results succeeded or not as much as the senior team members involved. It cannot be that he has acquiesced to some governmental pressure then. He is not made that way. He could have come out earlier, when the nuclear deal was being negotiated, but he did not. He could have come out with papers and seminars when he was at IDSA as a Director, he did not do so. Until now.
There is a reason as to why he has said it now. Gentle readers, I urge you to think through on these lines and review what has been happening in the recent past. Both in the region and in international fora.
With regard to the question whether the test was a “fizzle” or a success, there are of course two views. As evidenced here in BR and elsewhere. But let us take at face value what every one is concluded as to what Santhanam is claiming - that the thermo-nuke test was a failure. It is another matter, that most media personnel are tarring the entire exercise as failure. Let us ignore that for a while. They are being their usual incompetent selves.
Let me now try and present an alternate view which is slightly different then the popular belief that is now gaining ground as a result of Santhanam’s remarks. The popular views is that are gaining ground as a result of Santhanam’s remarks are:
1. India does not have thermo nuclear capability as the test was a failure, without further tests it is impossible to claim that we have the capability.
2. India needs to do a series of tests and this is now not realistically possible as this would jeopardize the US India nuclear deal and its economic goals
3. India is therefore consigned to the levels of a second rate nuclear power like North Korea and Pakistan and is not in the league of P5.
4. India as a result cannot attain the second strike capability thus rendering its stated nuclear doctrine ineffective
What then is the unstated objective of India’s detractors – both declared and undeclared ones? That India should therefore give up its pursuit of great power status as a military power of reckoning and agree to be part of a coalition of democracies under the umbrella of other powers. This really is the essence of it. There are other things but let us keep it simple here.
From what I can understand of how India’s nuclear policies and capabilities are managed after reading some of the notable publications on the subject, it is clear that multiple dimensions are managed at different levels and the overall picture and control is maintained by a small group attached to the PMO.
What could be this structure? Here is my take on it.
Policy Group – A small group headed by the PM, responsible for taking all decisions in terms of policy, what capability should be achieved, what should be the time frame and who should know what. Provides funding and other support and does the overall oversight. This is the highest level and probably privy to all aspects of India’s nuclear capabilities and programmes. Even here, there could be only a few in this group who may know everything.
Technical Group – An inter institutional group probably headed by the Scientific Advisor to the PM. Responsible for briefing the policy group on what capabilities can be achieved, what is the trend in the field, building the capability, testing and offering professional technical advice. Takes inputs from National Security Advisor in terms of what challenges have to be met and by when. Two key institutions in this are DRDO and BARC.
One key feature to be noted - there could be sub-groups set up that are authorized to carry out specific tasks. They will be provided necessary inputs to carry out the task but will not have complete knowledge of the whole programme, but only the part they are concerned with.
Second key feature is that for every project team, there is a cross institutional peer review team that gives its independent advice to the Policy Group on claims and results.
Operational Group – Essentially the user groups of armed forces coordinated by Strategic Command. This will provide the operational requirements and professional advice on threat perceptions to the Policy Group and Technical Group. It is most likely responsible for maintenance of capability, training, stockpile stewardship support. In addition, it is likely to be responsible for assisting the technical group in conducting tests and user trails. Once again, there is every likelihood of sub-groups who are tasked specific responsibilities and the extent of exposure to information is limited to the same. A strict need to know basis rule is in place as to who knows what and to what extent.
Security Group: A dedicated multi institution team that is tasked with the responsibility of maintaining secrecy and opaqueness. It is also likely that this team is tasked with misinformation and disinformation responsibilities as well.
The above is purely my take, and I may be totally wrong or totally right or somewhere in between. The point is something like this structure controls the entire gamut of Indian Nuclear capability.
It is in this context, the 1998 tests should be looked at. If indeed there was a problem with the thermo nuclear device, it is simply very difficult for a group of people to subvert the system and mislead the government into a false sense of achievement. Having said that, there could be a situation that a test result is misrepresented and decisions are made based on that. Let us assume now for arguments sake, given that Santhanam has spoken out, that this happened with regard to the thermo nuclear device.
Available evidence suggests, that there was a dispute raised internally by members of the DRDO team based on their instruments and readings. This was put up to a committee comprising both BARC and DRDO and the said committee has accepted the BARC counter. The said committee would have had all the details to take its view. None outside it would have it. PK Iyengar was not part of it. So while he had his doubts and expressed it openly, he was not in a position to prove that the test was a fizzle conclusively. He came up with his doubts and they were valid ones. Was Santhanam part of the committee? Did he know every detail? Most likely, Yes. That is why his comments are to be taken seriously. If he did not, at least his public utterances does not give that impression. Hence, his nuanced position on the topic. If he was indeed part of that committee, then he was party to the technical advice given.
The advice was that India had the capability of building a thermonuclear device. There was a small technical snag that can be corrected without resorting to full scale tests immediately. Also, the deviation between design yield and observed yield was explained by this snag. It is likely that the technical group gave this professional advice to the Policy Group. What it did not expect was that there would be no further chances to test if it was needed.
Now the Policy Group had the enormous task of dealing with the aftermath of this decision. There were several key people assigned with specific responsibilities and they all delivered. Advani was tasked with provoking Pakistan to test so that the nuclear capability of Pakistan and its origin was opened up. He delivered on that. Yashwant was tasked with mitigating the effect of sanctions on growth and capital flow. He delivered on that. George was tasked with bringing into open the Chinese threat as a principal reason for Indian decision and he delivered on that. Jaswant was tasked with handling the real politik impact of the decision and he delivered on that.
It was the decision of the Policy Group to declare the voluntary moratorium to blunt the US attack and pressure on CTBT. Jaswant was even asked to discuss this with Talbott later. This was something that was not needed. This was a self lock that came in handy for the GOI but also provided some leverage to USG when it came to the nuclear deal negotiations. But it probably made sense at that time, given the all out effort made to Cap Rollback and Eliminate and prop up China by the USG. The GOI was careful enough to have a key to the lock by stating that the moratorium will stay indefinitely but will be periodically subject to scrutiny based on security and threat assessments.
This must have come as a surprise to the technical group. They were not expecting such a public declaration of moratorium but rather expecting a non published as the post 1974 hold back of GOI.
Coming to the present situation, the Indo US Nuclear deal gave access to India to enter the international arena and participate as an “equal. ” The present administration was faced with a dilemma; the Uranium availability had reached a critical stage. It was vital that Indian nuclear industry developed to meet the growing energy demands and India had access to this in unconstrained manner. They got a deal with the US. The present GOI in my opinion was willing to limit its military programme and freeze it with a view to seize the opportunity that Bush administration was presenting. But what was offered first and what was concluded in the end was somewhat different.
It was still the right thing to do. As long as one was confident that in the case of supreme National interest, the GOI will not hesitate to test no matter what the cost to it post the deal. Moreover, the cost was limited to what was exposed to the US and its laws. But the USG had other ideas and they did attempt to CRE yet again. Case in point, their attempt to ensure FBR was brought under scrutiny and only in the civilian sector, their subsequent reneging on ENR technology etc.
The willingness of the PM and his team to clinch this deal at the cost of surrendering sovereign options was shocking to quite a few. Inside the establishment, Anil Kakodkar took the step of speaking out to ensure that it did not happen and forced the issue.
The present act of Santhanam could be a result of something similar. Is the GOI headed by the current economist PM ready to surrender India’s sovereign options (not soverignity) in terms of its nuclear policy and capability to secure more support for its accelerated economic growth?
In support of such an assertion, the data points are there. MMS has always been at best a lukewarm supporter of nuclear weapons. His stint as FM saw him prevent PVN twice from testing. He has withheld funds from AEC to build domestic Uranium capability as well as the three stage programme when he was Director there representing FM. His world vision for India seems decidedly based on being an economic power and acting in concert with other democracies and multi literalism. This is demonstrated time and again by his speeches at international fora. His willingness to overlook Indian interests and sensibilities and agreeing to try and save Pakistan in order to serve US interests there are all data points.
In contrast, the same PM has also been responsible for ensuring support to vital programmes like missile defence and ATV. Has also gone on record that he would support these delivery mechanisms to ensure the Draft Nuclear Doctrine envisaged triad is available to the armed forces. His government has also sanctioned the highest number of border projects in recent times in reaction to the Chinese threats. He has also kicked off ambitious and qualitative overhaul of capabilities in conventional forces as well.
So what is the real agenda of MMS? It seems to me that he is interested in freezing whatever capability there is and try hard for a genuine disarmament effort. In his vision, he sees nuclear capability is a distraction from the main mission of economic growth. He does not want India as a global power in all its dimensions. I have called it the Japan Model in the past. He is therefore more likely to sign up to multilateral agreements as long as India is allowed to keep its capabilities at the current levels and he wants in exchange complete and unhindered access to technology and capital so that India emerges as one of the leading economic power first. Maybe he believes, that once that is achieved, India will be in a position to assert itself and catch up on the military and power projection fronts. India then will have the strength to disregard agreements and unequal pieces of paper signed now.
With the current main opposition in disarray and somewhat on the defensive, it is unlikely that it will be in a position to effectively oppose any move by the GOI to go ahead and sign up agreements like CTBT or FMCT.
Santhanam is a nationalist. Those who have had the opportunity of interacting with him would know what he feels about India’s position in the world and the nuclear apartheid. He is not alone. There are others in the establishments who have a clear idea what India should aim for. Shyam Saran’s speech is another example of that line of thinking.
In my view, Santhanam does not want India to surrender its nuclear options and hence his coming out in the open and using the arguments of the west to make a case for it. It is a much nuanced stance he is taking here. It could also be a desperate bid to prevent it by sparking a debate. Anil Kakodkar was successful to some extent in protecting Indian interests earlier during the Indo-US negotiations. This time Santhanam has taken it upon himself to do so.
The contra view to the above is that MMS and the GOI are facing acute pressure to sign up to the CTBT or FMCT. GOI does not want to sign up and hence is using the arguments of the NPA community by turning it on its head and sparking a debate in India for creating a favourable environment for not signing any such options curtailing deal and also testing the thermonuclear device. Why now? Because the delivery systems are all ready and there has been further refinement of the weapon design in the intervening period. Santhanam is ideally placed to place the doubt in public domain, create a debate and then let the GOI be seen as responding to it as a mature government and testing.
Why is there need for test? My view is that the test is necessary to establish firmly and unambiguously the deterrence value and not so much as proving technical capability. As I said, those who will have doubts about it will have it. And those who don’t will not have it. But there is no place for doubts when it comes to establishing deterrence value that is more critical to India given the NFU posture it has adopted.
If the contra view is the right one, then the GOI in the next few days will come out with clear statements that it will not sign up to CTBT or FMCT in hurry and the moratorium will be reviewed periodically. If there is a need as per the security and threat perception or a need for improving the safety and reliability of Indian Nuclear arsenal, then GOI will seek to suspend the moratorium. Of course, there will be the mandatory statement of India is committed to nuclear weapons free world and everyone is family sentiments expressed. That will be a clear indication that Santhanam was doing his appointed role by GOI.
If on the other hand, they try to come down heavily on his comments and brush his call for not signing CTBT and carrying more tests then the former is the reality. What GOI does in the coming weeks will clear up what is going on.
That is why I feel that the debate is not about whether the thermonuclear device “fizzled” or performed. That will always continue and no one will know for sure. What Santhanam is doing is using that debate and the doubts and aspersions cast by the NPA lobby and the west to keep Indian sovereign options open. To that extent, gentle readers, what he has said is important and what he has left unsaid is equally important too.
It is a rather long post, so those who have patiently read through it, please note that this is just a ramble and one person’s reading of tea leaves.