The Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL), Hyderabad, along with the other project in mission-mode, Advanced Technology Vehicle (the nuclear-powered ballistic missile-firing Arihant submarine, SSBN), are the two jewels in the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) crown. Under high-class chiefs R N Agarwal, Avinash Chander (recently promoted to head DRDO), and now G K Sekharan, ASL has rescued DRDO’s reputation, of course. But it has, with the second launch of the Agni-V intermediate range ballistic missile on September 16, also saved the credibility of India’s strategic deterrent with thermonuclear pretensions from being completely eroded.
But, first, why is India’s claim to thermonuclear status mere pretence? Well, because, Dr R Chidambaram, the one-time chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and, for the last decade, adviser on science and technology to the PM, despite being a scientist doesn’t believe in collecting empirical data! Along with strategic enclave stalwarts like the late K Subrahmanyam and the school of thought the latter spawned, he urged the Narasimha Rao government in the mid-90s, for instance, to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, arguing that the data collected from the single 1974 8-12 kiloton (KT) nuclear test was quite enough for the country to have an adequate deterrent and that India need never test again.
After the BJP government ordered the 1998 Shakti-series of nuclear tests anyway, and consistent with his previous advocacy, Chidambaram averred that the obvious malfunctioning of the thermonuclear weapon design tested in 1998 notwithstanding, India can rectify the flawed design and even update the weapons inventory by simply using computer simulation. By this standard, the Indian Air Force ought to operate combat aircraft entirely computer designed but never test-flown, and the army to induct an artillery piece that came out of a computer-assisted design shop but not test-fired. His unexplained and incomprehensible antipathy to nuclear testing has made a mockery of the country’s strategic wherewithal. On this issue, however, it is difficult to know where Chidambaram’s counsel ends and prime minister Manmohan Singh’s inclination to stick with the “no testing” central predicate of the nuclear deal with the US, begins.
Consider this: China has conducted over 80 tests to India’s six tests in all. It has advanced technology such as inertial confinement fusion (to replicate thermonuclear explosions in miniature) and a Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Testing facility (to simulate and study the implosion of an atom bomb triggering the combustion of the thermonuclear fuel), which India lacks. Chinese computing speeds will reach some 100 petaflops (million-billion functions per second) by 2015 while Indian super computers at present are at the 250 terraflop (trillion functions per second) level. With all these advantages, China has embarked on a new round of nuclear arsenal modernisation and US weapons designers have warned that without new tests the performance of American nuclear arms cannot be guaranteed. New Delhi, in contrast, has all but sworn off nuclear testing, whence its boast of the Indian deterrent featuring high-yield thermonuclear weapons in the 125KT-275KT categories risks an enemy calling India’s bluff and borders on foolhardiness. So, that’s the problem: An Indian 275KT fusion bomb may, by fluke, reach the full yield or, as is more likely, produce yields anywhere between the high figure and the fission trigger level of 20KT! It’s this appalling uncertainty about the effects of the Indian thermonuclear weapons that’s created a real operational dilemma for the Strategic Forces Command.
The ASL retrieved this intolerable deterrence situation somewhat with the accurate, lightweight, Agni-V missile. This Agni will eventually be all-composite, including the casing and rocket motors made of Kevlar-carbon-carbon, Guidance on Chip for terminal accuracy, and distributed communications nodes through the length of the missile to minimise wiring. As the two tests of this missile have proved, using the Russian Glonass GPS and the on-board inertial guidance system and ring laser gyroscope, 15-20 meter CEP (circular error probable — a measure of accuracy) at 5,500km range has been achieved. Moreover, armed with 4-8 MIRV (Multiple Independently-targetable Re-entry Vehicles) warheads — a technology permitting a single missile to carry multiple bombs for dispersed targeting that has been a “screwdriver’s turn away” from being test-ready but whose testing has not been approved by Manmohan Singh, the Agni-V range can be extended to intercontinental distances.
In any case, even before this precision targeting capability was proved, official strategists trying to justify the test-moratorium began claiming that Agni missiles with single or MIRVed 20KT fission warheads will be just as daunting for any adversary, and that the strategic credibility and clout of India’s deterrent is, therefore, not in doubt. MIRVed Agni missiles do afford the strategic forces certainty of impact and versatility but 20KT warheads are not prime dissuaders.
Missile accuracy at extreme range is fine but it is only the high-yield, preferably, high-yield thermonuclear armaments that really matter. The sheer scale of destruction promised by a single incoming megaton (MT)-warheaded missile can be guaranteed to induce the worst sort of dread in, and impose immense psychological stress and pressure on, the adversary state’s leadership, something the relatively small yield 20KT bomb simply cannot do. In any test of wills, the country armed with the 20KT weapons will fold before a state with MT weapons, call off the confrontation and, whatever is at stake, accept a compromise on the former’s terms.
Then again, the Indian government has little understanding of conventional and, even less, nuclear deterrence when dealing with a powerful foe. In fact, India is so self-damagingly Pakistan-fixated on both counts it does not see the folly of training strategic weapons on a tactical-level threat. India is also an exception to the rule of nuclear weapons states nursing high-yield fusion arsenals. The standard issue warheads for the long range Dong Feng missiles being one megaton or 3.3MT, China can deter America. Weak-kneed Indian governments have not shown the gumption to resume thermonuclear testing to obtain a host of safe, proven, and reliable fusion weapons including the MT type to deter China.
[Published in the ‘New Indian Express’, Oct 4, 2013 at http://newindianexpress.com/opinion/Nuclear-effects-of-Agni-V/2013/10/04/article1817217.ece