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A top scientist's claim that India's 1998 nuclear test was a failure poses a big threat to Obama's nonproliferation plans.
“I cannot see India testing at all, unless the U.S. itself tests or China tests or Pakistan tests,” Sibal said. “Unilaterally testing makes no sense to me. The cost would be intolerable, not merely in terms of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, but we'd be isolated internationally. We'd be seen as wrecking the international nonproliferation regime for no good reason.”
“Manmohan Singh may not be inclined to test during his tenure, which is another four years,” Karnad said. “But the idea is to nevertheless keep the testing option open.”
The implications of both testing and not testing are murky.
Even if India never tests another nuke, Santhanam's accusation that Pokhran II was a fizzle isn't as damning as it might sound. For nuclear scientists, fizzle is a technical term for detonations that yield 30 percent less concussive force than expected, and Santhanam himself acknowledges that India's thermonuclear device yielded an explosion equivalent to 15 to 20 kilotons of TNT — the rub is that it was intended to generate 45 kilotons. The minimum deterrent lobby argues that's powerful enough to dissuade Pakistan from getting any crazy ideas, and even if India's nukes pale in comparison with China's, they're still devastating enough to give any rational adversary pause.
But for others, the niggling fear remains that doubts about the capacity of India's nuclear bombs make it all the more likely that one day it may have to use them. On the other hand, the global reaction to a new test is equally unpredictable. It would almost certainly spell an end to the Indo-U.S. agreement on civilian nuclear projects, and likely put its power projects with countries like France and Russia in jeopardy.
“I would expect that India would be placed in an international penalty box for some period of time and would be blamed for 'scuttling' efforts to bring a CTBT into force,” Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, confirmed in an email interview. The last time, India stayed in the penalty box for a decade, but U.S. sanctions prohibiting economic and military aid were waived after only a year.
The hawks in India's security establishment are growing more firm in their belief that the U.S. and Europe will not be comfortable isolating India from the global community for long this time, either, because it has emerged as Asia's only credible counterweight to China's growing military and economic might. “They might thrash about a bit and sound off a bit, but what option do they have?” Karnad said.
Apart from the paranoid, what developing nations hope to gain from their nuclear weapons is not so much security — though the contrasting treatment that the U.S. meted out to Iraq and Pakistan shows the value of deterrence in that realm — but a seat at the table. And that means Obama and the West have one big bargaining chip left to bring India into the nonproliferation fold: Sign the CTBT, get a seat on the U.N. Security Council.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the explanation of thermonuclear capability.