Chidambaram’s dud blows up strategic deterrent
First Published : 27 Sep 2009 12:07:00 AM ISTLast Updated : 28 Sep 2009 05:53:29 PM IST
EVEN though the Atomic Energy Commission certified that the dud thermonuclear device tested during Pokhran 2 in May 11, 1998, was no dud, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and R Chidambaram, the AEC chairman in 1998 and currently scientific adviser to the Prime Minister, felt compelled to step out on Thursday to mount a fresh defence of their untenable claim. This was necessary because the previous attempt by the AEC did not find any purchase in the media. It was left to Chidambaram, who, peers and associates say, was an extremely reluctant nuclear bomb tester, to make his case.
Chidambaram made a power point presentation so abstruse, esoteric and arcane to a general audience that most of the reporters of the event failed to convey even a half-way accurate picture. He did not present any relevant scientific data for his disbelieving peers to pore over. It is another matter that the gobbledygook he produced did not make any scientific sense to those scientists who watched the proceeding with great interest.
What is of relevance, however, is that Chidambaram, who worked under P K Iyengar, who has questioned the efficacy of the thermonuclear test, asked the press: “We do not understand, how, without knowledge of the design and, therefore without knowledge of the fusion-fission break-up and quantity of thermonuclear material in the device, and its isotopic composition, he (Iyengar) has tried to calculate the efficiency of the fusion burn.” (Pokhran II: “no scientific basis for doubts”, The Hindu, Friday September 25) Considering that Iyengar has been for the most part a DAE insider and at the core of the Pokhran I team, who knows the test site like the back of his hand, its geological features, the shaft depths and various other parameters, and as someone who no doubt knows and interacts with other scientists in the establishment he has long served and headed, and given the innate curiosity a scientist has, it would have been prudent for Chidambaram not to ask a question that is so completely naive. But then again, considering that Chidambaram believes he can create thermonuclear bombs of up to 200 kilo tonnes from half-baked data from just one botched thermonuclear test his assertion about Iyengar is not even half as naive.
In 1995, when the Narasimha Rao government was contemplating nuclear tests, a thermonuclear device was part of the plans. Between then and 1998 is just three years.
It would, of course, have been far simpler for Chidambaram to provide the complete data in camera to Iyengar so that the matter could be set at rest without further damaging the rapidly eroding credibility of the DAE and its style of management.
After all, Iyengar has never been a security risk. It cannot be that once he retired he instantly turned into some sort of untouchable or that his expertise gained over a lifetime of proven scientific achievements became suddenly worthless.
Consider for example what happened in Chidambaram’s Mumbai exposition. It was an absurd stratagem where a highly technical and complex subject was presented at a press conference where most of the media obviously did not follow closely the implications of the mumbo-jumbo uttered by the scientists. There was thus no scope for seeking clarifications over what was said, or even challenge the assertions that were made. You asked a question and got more mumbo jumbo for answer.
For example, Chidambaram’s breathtaking explanation of the lack of the crater after the thermonuclear explosion: He said the thermonuclear device was emplaced in pink granite. It would, of course, be logical to assume that shock waves would travel faster through granite and produce accurate readings. But we know that the purpose of the press conference was not to provide clarity.
The point is: The studied refusal to take on board valid scientific criticism and analysis will surely lead to more idiosyncratic functioning of the kind that Chidambaram represents. Given the fact that Chidambaram has systematically and deliberately refused to sit with Iyengar and clear the giant nuclear mushroom-sized clouds over the efficacy of the device, his throwaway line deserves to be discussed in some detail.
Iyengar told this reporter that so beset was he by doubts of the efficacy of the thermonuclear device that was tested on May 11, 1998 that he dashed off a paper with his arguments on why he thought the device underperformed to then National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra who promised to take it up with Chidambaram and arrange a meeting where it could be sorted out.
Subsequently, there was no response from the National Security Adviser. When Iyengar ran into Mishra quite by chance at an event both were attending, Iyengar asked Mishra what the delay was about. Mishra responded, “He (Chidambaram) doesn’t want to meet you. The chemistry (between you two) seems to be wrong.” “What has chemistry got to do with this?” asked Iyengar, and made the point that, “These are technical issues and personal chemistry doesn’t come into it.” Mishra responded: “He (Chidambaram) doesn’t want to meet you.” There the matter rested for some time, and later efforts to broker such a meeting involving Raja Rammana as an intermediary also bore no fruit.
Mishra clearly felt disinclined to push Chidambaram to sort the doubts out or get to the bottom of the matter on which India’s deterrence against China rested. And obviously Chidambaram had more than a sneaking suspicion that he might get caught out if he took on Iyengar and therefore, it could be argued, is afraid of the repercussions of being totally exposed.
Bharat Karnad in India’s Nuclear Policy (Praeger Security, 2008) deals with this aspect of what amounts, clearly, to a most serious dereliction of responsibility on the part of the then national security adviser.
“Even when the military’s doubts about unproven and untested nuclear weapons are conveyed to the government, it has had little effect,” he writes (pages 69-70). Karnad quotes Ved Malik, the chief of army staff in the period of the 1998 tests. Malik recalled that Iyengar, who was then waging a relentless campaign for additional testing, met with him and gave him technical reasons why he thought the thermonuclear device did not work and more testing was needed.
“Troubled by what he had been told Malik conveyed the former nuclear chief ’s misgivings to National Security Adviser Brijesh Mishra.” Karnad asked Mishra about this. “Mishra states that the BJP government had no choice but to believe R Chidambaram, the AEC chairman at that time. “Who am I to go and say (these tests did not work)” says Mishra, “and…I will appoint a commission to enquire into whether the scientists are telling the truth or not?” Mishra was being rhetorical, of course, but clearly acknowledged the possibility that the scientists may not have been telling the truth. So, is Chidambaram lying? Did Mishra want to get to the truth? With Chidambaram at the helm of sensitive nuclear affairs, what must really be going on in the DAE? Did the national interest lie in pampering the ego of Chidambaram or in removing even the faintest shadow of doubt that the thermonuclear device underperformed? There was a mountain of credible sceptical analyses that piled up even as Mishra deliberately took the side of Chidambaram in a manner that did not serve the interests of the nation.
His reaction to scepticism is the textbook example of how not to behave in a moment of such crisis. Surely there were other ways he could have handled the situation. Iyengar, Mishra was able to fob off far more easily than K Santhanam of the DRDO, who, along with other people in the control room and the instrumentation room knew near instantaneously that the thermonuclear test failed miserably.
But Chidambaram refused to acknowledge the reality staring him in the face and had it conveyed to New Delhi that the tests succeeded. The DRDO data that came in and was analysed also showed conclusively that the thermonuclear part of the test failed. Santhanam submitted a 50-page report to Brajesh Mishra towards the end of 1998, with the approval of A P J Abdul Kalam, making certain recommendations. Mishra knew he could not ignore Santhanam’s report the way he ignored Iyengar’s repeated efforts. Mishra called for a meeting to discuss it.
“Mishra recalled he had convened a meeting to clear the suspicions and doubts that arose in the minds of some, particularly Santhanam, about the yield of the TN test” (‘‘No voice vote over result’’, Mail Today, September 16). In just one cursory meeting Mishra disposed of a hugely complex scientific subject that goes to the heart of India’s future defence requirement.
Apparently Abdul Kalam kept his own counsel at the meeting even though the damning report was prepared with his consent. Chidambaram disagreed with Santhanam’s contention. Mishra agreed with Chidambaram. End of meeting.
It is simply bizarre the way the then National Security Adviser handled the issue. Santhanam, being in a minority of one, was effectively shouted down. The then chairman AEC was against testing.
He believed he could do it through computer simulation alone and advocated signing CTBT even without tests.
Karnad writes in India’s Nuclear Policy (page 68) that when Narasimha Rao latched on to Chidambaram’s “simulation option and ruled out resumption of nuclear tests in 1995” “the BARC council — the highest decision making body in the nuclear council” sent a “unanimous note” to Chidambaram challenging his view and demanding new tests” Is it even remotely possible that this man, this reluctant nuclear weapons tester, who claimed he could do it without conducting tests, failed? But one thing is for sure: the more Chidambaran tries to explain his miraculous non-working thermonuclear weapon the less likely it is that the people will believe him. That is the simplest equation of state that we can derive from this particular dud thermonuclear device. And we certainly don’t need more tests to prove it. Not even computer simulations, thankfully.