Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Core ideas underlying India's approach to the issue of nuclear explosives

I just want to summarize the core motivations underlying India's explorations in area of nuclear explosives.

Most nations that have sought nuclear weapons have done so only when confronted with an obvious existential threat. Such a narrative is absent in the Indian context - India has never experienced an obvious existential conflict that could only be forestalled by nuclear weapons.

So it is fair to ask - why does India seek knowledge of nuclear explosives?

The answer lies in the Indian analysis of the colonial period.

As we all know India suffered greatly in the colonial period. Its resources were raped and capital accrued over centuries was looted by Britain. Even though the latter part of the colonial period led to the emergence of a priceless political liberalism - the material costs of the colonial period were so high that most Indians have a very negative view of those times.

Indians view the colonial period with the same degree of negativity as Jews view the Shoah. While a direct comparison between the suffering of European Jews during the Shoah and Indians during British rule is completely absurd - the Indian sense of psychological injury from over a hundred years of colonization is similar to the Jewish sense of pain from a decade of Nazi persecution.

Analogously to the Jews, Indians do not view European culture negatively - they only reject the excesses of colonization. Just as Jewish people cannot be expected to ever put the Shoah behind them, Indians (and many other nations) cannot be expected to let go of the negativity attached to the colonization.

In the decades that led up to and followed independence from Britain, Indians became severely affected by a post-colonial paranoia. When repeatedly asking themselves - "Why did India fall prey to colonial forces?" - they independently and consistently came up with an answer that was hard to refute.

The answer (as it came to be accepted) was that India failed to resist colonial subjugation because it lagged the world in science and technology. The engines of innovation that had long fueled India's economic growth since the late Iron Age, had shut down and India had missed the industrial revolution.

Once you accept that as the core of your thinking - you tend to view any denial of technology (due to external or internal reasons) as an existential threat. 

After 1947 - strong leaders like Prime Minister Nehru and Secretary Homi Bhabha laid the foundations of a science and technology centered approach towards economic independence. This economic independence was believed to be the most critical aspect of maintaining political freedom and sovereignty.

One area that India came up very short in was carbon based energy generation. India had coal but it was of exceedingly poor quality and utilization at scale would prove uneconomical. It was here that the idea of Thorium utilization came up. It was actively supported by Dr. Bhabha and PM Nehru.  Even today - decades after the death of the main architects - the idea of Thorium utilization finds few opponents in India.

Given the complexity of this fuel cycle, Indians periodically need to prove (to themselves and the world) that they can master any technology. The department tasked with paving the way to this Thorium fueled future routinely show-cases its prowess in a variety of other areas  - from medicine to high yield seed varieties and so on.

The design of complex and reliable nuclear explosives is merely one aspect of such a display.

That is what all this design of nuclear explosives is essentially about - it is a desire to demonstrate that India's scientific community is NOT limited by either hard physics or difficult engineering or externally imposed technology denial regimes.

If an attempt is externally made to shut down the Indian explosive research program it will have the opposite effect of what is intended - the Indians will double down on their efforts to master the technology by any means possible.

Only a quid-pro-quo approach is possible - where India's desires to exploit Thorium energy and other forms nuclear power generation is facilitated in exchange for India voluntarily cutting back on its explorations of the nuclear explosive designs.

While Pakistan has significant other factors affecting its desire to pursue nuclear explosive technology, I feel its national thinking is also severely influenced by the colonial period. It is advisable to recognize that aspect of things in discussions with the Pakistanis as well.


At 2:33 AM, Blogger Ralphy said...

"Only a quid-pro-quo approach is possible - where India's desires to exploit Thorium energy and other forms nuclear power generation is facilitated in exchange for India voluntarily cutting back on its explorations of the nuclear explosive designs."

if India wants to try other forms of nuclear power generation then have at it. what do you expect the US to do? tell you how to do it? sounds like black mail otherwise......

At 11:02 AM, Blogger maverick said...

>> if India wants to try other forms of nuclear power generation then have at it. what do you expect the US to do? tell you how to do it? sounds like black mail otherwise....

At this time, I don't think anyone in the US actually knows how to construct a working fusion reactor or how to make an economically viable Thorium based closed fuel cycle. If the US had that technology it could barter with it - but that is not the case here.

Yes the NIF does provide significant insight into the process of nuclear fusion and reaction rate control in that context, but most of the HEDP community can't really see any bridge from the NIF experiments to the design of a working fusion reactor.

The only bargaining chip the US has in this context is to get out of India's way in exchange for an assurance from the Indian side.

It is actually a very good situation - because the US can reinstate curbs as quickly as India can back out of an assurance.

The situation is almost perfectly balanced.

As long as the US keeps pushing ahead with its own research into advanced fuel cycles, there is no danger of India racing ahead of the US in that field.

I don't know what precise curbs India would like to see removed. I only made the post to lay out the "existential" impetus behind India's nuclear posture.

At 11:11 AM, Blogger maverick said...

Weaponization of India's nuclear capabilities is still very mysterious to me.

In the context of Pakistan's first use posture - it makes some sense but not a whole lot of sense when you actually think through the details of the deterrence regime.

In the context of China, I am not sure if it makes sense at all. As India has never demonstrated a nuclear weapon released from a fully mated system, China will have difficulty seeing India as a truly nuclear armed state. Even if China does consider India a nuclear weapons state with some kind of capability, India has a publicly stated NFU, and so does China. So it is again difficult to predict how any nuclear escalation will occur between India and China.

If India decides to go toe-to-toe with China, then it will have to bring its weapons systems to a very high level of readiness. Having India's weapons at a high level of readiness will make the entire deterrence regime vis-a-vis Pakistan unstable, as Pakistan will no longer have rungs on the escalation ladder that it can climb up in the event something bad happens. The whole signalling mechanism breaks down when everything is canned and ready to pop out of the silo. It also leaves the entire regime very vulnerable to an accident or miscommunication.

Being so far up on the ladder of escalation is dangerous.

I am very confused about India's nuclear weapons ideas.

India's nuclear explosive technology ideas are much easier for me to grasp.

At 4:19 AM, Blogger Ralphy said...

it's all about nationalism and political power there of. all countries want it except for Japan and Germany and Sweden. (They could have it of course if they want it. quite easily in fact.) but they have some serious heavy hitter allies. so no need to worry about it.

India is a different story. Once they nagged the British enough to get their rightful independence they swiftly adopted Fabian Socialism as their political nexus. This led to decades long economic languishing in the doldrums. No Erhard German economic miracle for them, thank you. During this time they had numerous wars and border disputes and a small tift with the US in 1971. They swiftly concluded they were getting no respect or political status with non aligned third world grouping. Thus, the Bomb.

Never mind the fact that India stomped Pakistan military in ground with one hand tied behind its back or have successfully stared down China in a border dispute for decades w/o getting nuked. Doesn't matter. It's all about the lack of respect from the US and its gaggle of simpering allies that galls it the most. The bomb gets it.

Does the stray thought cross India's mind that if they had economic growth like Germany and Japan that the US and its associate fellow mopes might look it differently? Yeah sure, and 25 years ago India started at last to succeed economically. But bomb was still primo. The Big Kahuna like the cherry on top the yummy chocolate sundae.

At 7:48 AM, Blogger maverick said...

Actually it is important to distinguish between post WWII reconstruction in Europe and India's economic recovery after 1947.

In Europe - aid and loans flew in under the Marshall plan to rebuild the nations destroyed by war.

In India, the costs of the partition and the loss of investment were never mitigated by any support plan.

This has led to a major difference in the way the post independence Indian economy and the post WWII European economy evolved.

The "Nuclear Explosive Device" became part of a narrative that emphasized India demonstrating its technology prowess.

The Bomb itself was never really a part of the narrative - although in public documentation the words "Bomb" and "Explosive Device" were used interchangeably by people who didn't know the difference.

The idea of a Chinese nuclear threat was ill-formed. At the time that Secy. Bhabha and PM Nehru, there was no real forecasting on Chinese abilities. Neither PM Nehru nor Secy Bhabha had the faintest idea what China's true capabilities were. That is why India ended up going along with General LeMay's ideas of putting a radiation detector on top of Mount Nandadevi and Nanda Kot in the Himalayas. India was as desperate for intelligence of the Chinese nuclear threat as the US was.

Today I am very confused by what India seeks to actually achieve with large scale nuclear *weapons* deployment.

I confess I have never been exposed to the details of that kind of decision making, but I am find myself bewildered when I find people throwing around all sorts of ideas on ranges of nuclear delivery platforms and desirable yields for physics packages without a clear discussion of the targets. I am not aware of any Indian discussion on the morphology of targets vis-a-vis China.

I have never seen any discussion public or private where someone has said

If China hits X, India will want to hit Y.
If China hits A, then India will hit B, etc...

Speaking from a high level perspective.

India and China have an NFU each. This reduces the potential for nuclear escalation significantly.

China has agreed not to deploy short range nuclear weapons in the outer Tibetan plateau. This effectively amounts to saying that it does not intend to hit the Gangetic plain where 60% of India's population lives. That is a very clear expression of non-hostile intention one that was matched by an Indian pledge to refrain from deploying SFF/SG assets within 50 miles of the LoAC. This agreement keeps the land of the Dalai Lama in some peace.

In the decades following this agreement. China has developed a number of higher reliability long range missile platforms. Apart from improvements in propulsion technology, China has also made significant advances in inertial navigation issues. BUT - NO CHINESE NUCLEAR WARHEAD HAS EVER BEEN MATED TO A LONG RANGE WEAPON AND DEMONSTRATED IN AN OVERGROUND FULL SYSTEM TEST.

In parallel India too has indulged a focused program of missile, INS and propulsion technology development but India has not demonstrated anything resembling a fully mated system at ANY RANGE (long or short).

Theoretically speaking an IAF Su-30MKI/Tu22 could take off, refuel in air and air drop a nuclear weapon on to a Chinese target.

Similarly theoretically speaking a PLAAF Su30MKI could do the same thing flying out of an airbase in inner Tibet and do the same thing to India.

But beyond those to things - I don't know what can be said. Both India and China have AEW patrols to warn of such hostile air activity. Both India and China can mount BARCAPs that frustrate such a flight.

I don't understand how to proceed logically beyond this.

I don't understand what talk of megaton devices means without a clear understanding of how and where to target them.

At 7:24 PM, Blogger Ralphy said...

since 1951 the US has sent billions in aid to India in terms of 2015 inflation adjusted money, The amount is staggering. The Fabians did nothing with it other than to feed the poor which is a noble cause but some how the leverage was not used by India. The main complaint was the aid program was really a sop to the US farmer and Indians by and large didn't eat wheat anyway. No thoughts of taking a lemon and making the proverbial lemonade.

The main difference was that India didn't have the US Army occupying and making all key decisions that Germany and Japan had done to them. However to this day the Germans and the Japanese feel that they did it for themselves not the US just as India scoffs at US Aid in the past. The Hindutvas insisted that the US committed "economic terrorism" against India. Whatever that means.

After Fabian socialism was kicked out the door India's fortunes improved.

At 7:33 PM, Blogger Ralphy said...

Anyway, nuke bomb, explosive device, weapons system or any other appellation you want to give it, the main purpose was to get respect from the west. And they got it. QED

The last above ground US nuclear test was in 1962. That means the US minute man and Trident missiles systems have never been really tested other than dummy reentry war heads.

At 4:33 AM, Blogger maverick said...

Dear Ralphy,

>> Anyway, nuke bomb, explosive device, weapons system or any other appellation you want to give it, the main purpose was to get respect from the west. And they got it. QED
I don't think so.

I disagree with this contention.

I think there is a big difference between a nuclear explosive device and a nuclear weapons system and a nuclear weapons stockpile. These things all become blurred in the public imagination as nuclear weapons are very terrifying.

Few people doubt that India has a nuclear explosive device design and implementation capability, there is little evidence to support the idea that India has anything more than that.

Similarly there is significant evidence to support that the US/UK/France/Russia/China had demonstrated the ability to mate high yield nuclear warheads to delivery platforms in the past. There is no evidence that new physics packages such as the ones proposed are as robust as their predecessors. To the untrained eye - the possibility that a new platform is less reliable than the predecessor is hard accept - but to those who work with high technology - there is an understanding that any design is the result of trade-offs and when the balance of trade-offs is shifted - the reliability is difficult to ascertain.

Unless the P5 states make a clear move towards testing full systems with new warheads, there is no reason for India to even contemplate such a move. Even if the US or Russia decides to carry out a full-system test with a new warhead design, that does not automatically imply that India should do the same. The US and Russian tests may simply be a prelude to a massive reduction in stockpile sizes. If such a reduction is verifiable, then there is no need for India to test anything.

Without a single full system test - it is difficult to conceive of a "stockpile" or "arsenal" of any sort. That kind of talk is meaningless - whether it comes from Indian, Chinese, Pakistani, American or whatever other sources.

>> The last above ground US nuclear test was in 1962. That means the US minute man and Trident missiles systems have never been really tested other than dummy reentry war heads.

That is essentially correct. Given that neither the Russian nor Chinese adversary platforms or the French and British allied platforms have been tested in a full systems test (with attendant overground nuclear detonation) - the American position is consistent with the global standard.

If a nation like India were to attempt to achieve parity with the SLBM capable states, then it only needs to demonstrate a high fraction of successful launches from a submarine. If it can keep demonstrating low CEP missions against practice targets, then it can be said to have this capability to the same extent as the established SLBM capable states.

At 7:27 AM, Blogger Ralphy said...

I would point out that in 1962 missile delivery systems were not very reliable. essentially a chemical factory was required at the missile silo in order to keep the missile fueld. Sometimes with disasterous results. When a dropped wrench in a silo sparked an explosion that blew the nuclear warhead into a field a mile away from the silo. Quite a few Air Force people were killed. Not from the bomb which did not explode but from the huge fire in the silo. Russia had similar problems.

The minute men missiles are getting old and decripitied. They are randomly tested but still one wonders. Those missiles are around 40 years old, I think.

At 7:35 AM, Blogger Ralphy said...

Besides all the brouhaha about nukes, conventional warfare can also cause destruction on the order of a weapon of mass destruction. Starvation and disease can be very effective. Pakistan is very susceptible to this. They'll fold like yesterday's dirty laundry from a competent conventional attack.

The Russians got eyeful from the US-Iraq invasion. Although I would point out that Iraq was hardly on the level of a Japan or Germany.

At 8:12 AM, Blogger maverick said...

Dear Ralphy,

Yes, older weapons systems had their problems, but that just added factors on to the calculation of their P-Kill (probability of achieving a kill). The good thing about those weapons was that a P-Kill was actually calculable.

Without a full system test, you can't actually assign a P-kill. Without a P-kill you can't say how many strikes you will need to guarantee the annihilation of a single notional target. Without a number of strikes per target - it doesn't matter how long the list of targets is because you can't hit a single one with any level of confidence.

Without that most basic level of information, all this talk of being a nuclear weapons state is simply empty rhetoric. All one has at such a point is a cloud of confusing and ambiguous nonsense.

This is what I find most confusing about India's discussions on weaponization. I can't understand where they are getting the P-Kill numbers for *full systems*. I can understand calculating the CEP of a missile platform, and then calculating the average yield from a device but then how exactly do you combine the two and capture the probability of failure correctly?

Whatever the P-Kill of the legacy US/Soviet systems might have been - that is the only credible portion of the nuclear deterrence regime between the Allies and the Soviet Bloc or China. After the fall of the USSR, all talk of such matters was de-emphasized a mutual de-targeting was carried out. This is why the large arsenal sizes persist (as no one can guarantee that the novel full systems will work as reliably as the old ones).

The US and Russia still have missiles sitting in silos and submarines, notionally aimed at each other but NO specific targets are programmed into the guidance systems.

As I discussed in my earlier post ( - no conventional weapon can matching the sheer killing power of a single nuclear bomb. That is kind of why people like Hitler went after them in the first place (That fool Heisenberg allegedly went around telling SS top brass that a pineapple sized bomb could take out all of London!). All the secondary effects are still at play in a nuclear hit, they are simply much more severe in magnitude.


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