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Scientist reveals India nuke test fizzled

A top scientist's claim that India's 1998 nuclear test was a failure poses a big threat to Obama's nonproliferation plans.

Indian army soldiers stand guard during a joint army and air force Air-Land battle exercise in India's desert state of Rajasthan, March 19, 2008. (B. Mathur/Reuters)

NEW DELHI, India — Days before President Barack Obama told the United Nations that he hoped to push through a universal treaty to ban all nuclear weapons testing by the end of 2010, a top Indian scientist threw New Delhi's security establishment for an atomic loop.

Kasturiranga Santhanam, the coordinator of India's 1998 nuclear tests, went public with allegations that India's much heralded Pokhran II test of a thermonuclear bomb 11 years ago was actually a fizzle.

“We are totally naked vis-a-vis China, which has an inventory of 200 nuclear bombs, the vast majority of which are giant H-bombs of power equal to three million tons of TNT,” Santhanam told reporters in New Delhi this week.

Naturally, the bizarre exercise in reverse brinkmanship (“About that bomb we told you we have...”) did not go down well. India's 1998 demonstration of thermonuclear capability — a
fusion-based, Hydrogen bomb — was the cause of great celebration in a country still fighting for a voice in global affairs and sandwiched between a belligerent, hereditary enemy in Pakistan and a frightening potential future adversary in China.

By calling its success into question, scientist K. Santhanam, who was director of test site preparations for Pokhran II, shook the country's confidence in its nuclear deterrent at a moment when the long, frustrating peace process with Pakistan seems as futile as ever.

But for the rest of the world, Santhanam's bombshell amounts to a colossal preemptive strike against Obama's push for the nations of the world to sign a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by the end of next year — not to mention a potentially debilitating assault on last year's Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement. Already, opponents to the deal have begun echoing Santhanam's call for further testing of India's thermonuclear arsenal, and the lingering doubts about the efficacy of the country's bombs looks likely to tie Manmohan Singh's somewhat fragile coalition government's hands when the time comes to sign Obama's CTBT.

“We need to test again; it's just a question of when, not if,” said Bharat Karnad, a former member of India's National Security Advisory board and part of the group that drafted India's nuclear doctrine.

Of course, that may not have been true if Santhanam had kept his mouth shut. Since nuclear weapons are supposedly never to be used, whether the rest of the world believes they will work is more important than whether they actually do. And that's the simple fact that has flummoxed India's foreign policy experts, who are scratching their heads and asking, “Why now?” After all, Santhanam kept mum during the vociferous, three-year debate over the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, which also mandates an end to testing. “[Now] the whole thing becomes unnecessarily subject to controversy and doubts and questions, and the public loses confidence in what the government is saying about the nuclear deterrent — which is totally pointless,” said Kanwal Sibal, who was foreign secretary in the BJP-led government that proceeded Singh's Congress-led coalition.

The Singh government subscribes to the theory that a “minimum deterrent” is sufficient to protect India from its nuclear neighbors, and even though that theory was predicated on the existence of a small number of effective thermonuclear missiles, most observers believe that Singh will not begin preparations of any kind for a resumption of testing. The big question is whether he can sell the country on agreeing to Obama's full-fledged moratorium.

Some say yes, others no.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/india/090928/thermonuclear-test-india-fizzle