NKorea/Pakistan’s thermonuclear test details

The International Monitoring System based at Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia (comprising 5 primary and 13 auxiliary seismic stations, 4 infrasound stations, 8 radionuclide stations, 1 radionuclide laboratory), downwind from the North Korean Hanggyong mountain test site, has detected tritium. It confirms that the test Pyongyang was preparing for, and which the North Korean supremo Kim Jong Eun today confirmed, was of a hydrogen device, as warned in my blog on the subject three days ago. The seismic reading of 5.1 on the Richter Scale, in that rock hard substratum, translates to yield in the 50-100 kiloton range.

What experts believe is that given the relatively small yield for a fusion design but an apparently nearly flawless performance of the critical radiation channel that directs the fission energy from an atomic explosion into the tritium fuel package (that is the two stage system) in order to set off a full thermonuclear burn, the very good possibility is that the Pakistani designers have achieved something even more challenging — a successful tailored yield device and that too in miniaturized form!

This is a remarkable technical achievement even with Chinese weapons experts assisting and helping in configuring the design and vetting it before final engineering, for Pakistan to get right at the first shot — something India failed to do, whatever R. Chidambaram may say by way of obfuscatory explanations about the S-1 test in May, 1998.

But this is not the end. There is a certain method here. The 2013 test carried out in North Korea was of an FBF (fusion-assisted fission) device. The present one was “the lower-bound test of a dial-a yield TN weapon.” Far from being the terminus, there’s likely to be still another test in the series which will be full-fledged thermonuclear, and this new test could be conducted as early as July (or thereabouts) 2016 — i.e., just some six-odd months from now.

The strategic implications of Pakistan going fully thermonuclear with tested and proven weapons, courtesy the North Koreans and their making their test site available to the Pak Army’s SPD (Strategic Plans Division)-run nuclear weapons programme and hence providing Islamabad with plausible deniability — a brilliant working of the ‘rogue triad’ of China, Pakistan and North Korea, are too daunting to consider. For starters, it nullifies the official Indian doctrine’s misplaced reliance on “massive retaliation” as credible deterrence.
When an adversary confronts you with a proven and tested high yield weapon and you have only a notional fusion weapon that may or may not work — thanks to the lack of open-ended testing owing to the test moratorium persisted with by now four successive govts (including, so far the Modi regime) since the Shakti series of tests 17 years ago, then we have a problem.

The crucial difference is an incomprehensibly contented India habituated to thinking and acting small and minimal, sat still, thinking it had accomplished every thing, and is now where it was in May 1998 in terms of a noncredible thermonuclear arsenal. On the other hand, an unsatisfied Pakistan, displaying the sort of strategic verve and imagination absent in GOI, sought out other means of getting the weapons inventory it desired, and found a way out from under the US sanctions overhang in cahoots with its willing partners — China and North Korea.

Delhi sought Washington’s suffocating embrace and now finds itself inferior strategic weapons-wise to a rump state carved out of India some 70 years ago but one with a far stronger will, a formidable sense of its national self, and an infinitely greater flair for playing the international power game.

Guess where that leaves India?

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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8 Responses to NKorea/Pakistan’s thermonuclear test details

  1. Satyaki says:

    Would Pak be able to force India to surrender completely and turn into their puppet state ? Can we muster the spine to undertake full blown nuclear testing till we get a credible thermonuclear deterrent or will Pak and China be able to use their superiority to subjugate us before we achieve that ? Shame on our establishment for having slept on this.

    • No. But we’ll never be able to threaten an overwhelming response.

      • ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

        Sure, we can threaten an overwhelming response to Pakis even if we remain with FBF. The separated Military Pu and the Additional Strategic Pu total upto 4 tons and that in some combinations can easily be made to exceed 35-50 MT equivalents The formally classified Military Pu is being maintained at around 0.5 tons for quite sometime now and that itself should give clear indications on how we and others view our situation. Half a ton, if restricted to FBF, would not give more than 4-6 MT equivalents and that would be good only for Pakis. Which is obviously not good enough.

        Unfortunately for us, that past accumulation, is the whole problem because it makes things that much more difficult to justify a resumption of testing. Gone are the days when Indian PM could write a letter to US Prez, pointing a finger at China.

        The requirement for Deterrence has been met, but just not met to the satisfaction of some parts of the system.

        On my part, the main concern is the technical capability and further development thereof. I just hope they are not sleeping after Shakti-2. Coincidently they actually do need to wait. All the world has been going back on its words and smart scientists can easily figure out ways of managing to do things without having to come out overtly. At least that would give us the technical growth.

        Probably the Indian Establishment will act in the following two ways:
        1) build up the strategic Pu reserves, in the hope that doubts about the TN are not allowed to stand in the way of Deterrence achieved. Notice the Chinese reaction to Japanese build up of plutonium reserves.
        2) covert R&D, which would, in any case be presumed by adversaries.

        I don’t think India is going to resume testing. Because if we do then the NSG gang will begin to push for limits on Additional Strategic Reserves. An Indian PM will happily live with doubts on his deterrence but no Indian PM will be comfortable with a curtailed strategic reserves. Even a lazy PM like MMS could only go upto classification of reactors and could not impose limits.

        A covert/contested test, like say the Vela incident, may be the answer because currently we are losing out on even that much in the hope of a bigger desire, that of deterrence enhancement. This time, like the Israelis, let the world say – you tested. And let us deny that we did :D. Contrast the Shakti Tests with the Vela Incidents and the reactions to both. If Indian establishment could remain undetected in one case of actual tests, there is nothing to suggest that they cannot repeat a performance and remain undetected in another ‘attempt’.

  2. Satyaki says:

    Bharat Sir,

    A seismic signal of 5.1 translates to about 20 kt on Hard rock. It would be more if the medium is soft. Compare seismic signal magnitues for Sary-Shagan as opposed to Nevada test site. This is available in open literature.

    That said, 20kt could very well be a fully succesful test of a boosted primary + radiation channel performance (going by what I have seen in open literature). For example, China’s 12th test is likely to be of this type. Should be viewed as the final step before a full fledged thermonuclear explosion of several hundred kt.

    Only this could potentially lead to our exiting our own suffocating moratorium. Hope it does. Hope you are able to convey the seriousness of the situation to the powers that be. A bullet train or two is not worth the emasculation of our deterrent capabilities.

  3. Satyaki says:

    Bharat Sir,

    Was it tritium or helium that was detected ?

  4. Srisiva.R says:

    Even we Indians have an opportunity with Japaneese who will be ready to cooperate with us in the present situation in the manner the Pakis and the North Koreans got together.

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